A communications lineman works between two heavily damaged homes. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate) ORG XMIT: BAT2110291006550010

Baton Rouge pollster John Couvillon said after Tuesday’s huge Republican wins that in many ways Virginia is a larger version of Louisiana. Blue cities, purplish suburbs, outnumbered by red exurbs and rural regions.

Voters of both colors are exhausted by the pandemic and frustrated by increasing prices. Red and blue voters, however, remain polarized by Donald Trump; wearing masks and being vaccinated; and how/if children are taught the racist bits of American history.

Where Louisiana differs from Virginia — other than how food is prepared and how fiddles are played — is an emerging bipartisan issue: hatred of insurance companies.

The Lake Charles state Senate race to replace Ronnie Johns, an insurance agent who became chair of the Gaming Control Board earlier this year, is all about the industry that has donated about $8 million to recent legislative and statewide campaigns.

“Insurers are ruining people’s lives,” said Dustin Granger, a Democratic candidate. “They use endless delay tactics, hoping people settle for less, and a lot of the poor can’t do anything about it, and they give in.”

Jeremy Stine, a Republican contender, said: “The punishment for that deadly sin of greed is condemnation and hell for all eternity, and the Christian tradition is to boil you alive in oil.”

“In Lake Charles they’re literally fighting over who hates insurance companies more,” said Eric Holl, head of Real Reform Louisiana, a Baton Rouge-based advocacy group that wants to revamp insurance. “But, the north shore, bayou, river parishes, all over the southeast parishes, both Democratic and Republican, they’re saying the same thing.”

Holl, whose group has been a pebble in the shoe of the insurance industry, predicts that bridling insurance will be a focus when Louisiana legislators return to Baton Rouge in March. It could spill over into 2022 congressional elections and the 2023 races that choose legislators and statewide officials, including governor.

Holl, an unabashed liberal, and Moon Griffon, the uber-conservative radio talk show host, agree on little. But they are simpatico on opposing sweeping new laws that changed court rules in the name of lowering premiums for auto insurance. Rates continue to go up and that result has undermined the credibility of the insurance industry as tens of thousands of homeowners seek help for Hurricane Ida damage — circumstances that are difficult in the best of times.

In 2019 and 2020, insurance framed the complex effort to limit access to the courts, called tort reform, as a way to lower the premiums on automobile insurance, something regular people could understand.

Similarly, a kitchen-table issue that voters can easily get their hands around is that many insurance companies aren’t paying the way their customers contend they ought.

Quick money for evacuation expenses wasn’t paid by some insurance companies in the handful of parishes that didn’t issue mandatory evacuation orders as required in policies’ fine print. Parish officials say that Hurricane Ida strengthened so quickly that they feared evacuations would catch people on the road in high winds. That point is going before an administrative judge.

Many more customers are complaining that some insurance adjusters are nitpicking damage claims to delay and lower payouts.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon is trying to temper the situation on behalf of consumers. But he notes that Louisiana is a relatively small insurance market, and its properties face an outsized exposure to hurricanes. Taking Draconian action could drive insurers from the market, making the property policies required by mortgage companies both more difficult to find and more expensive.

Political strategist Roy Fletcher of Baton Rouge sees insurance problems as the same sort of accumulation of issues that influenced voters in Virginia.

On top of dissatisfaction over the lingering pandemic problems, parents in Loudoun County, Virginia, were energized by coverage of angry school board meetings over masks and the teaching of critical race theory. Turnout in the purplish D.C. suburb increased 36.3% since the Commonwealth’s last gubernatorial election in 2017 and 24,369 more of those votes were cast for the Republican candidate and eventual winner Tuesday night.

“These campaigns are decided by local issues,” Fletcher said Thursday. “Car insurance rates aren’t going down. Insurance companies aren’t paying out. You can see that as somewhat analogous to Loudoun County in that all these issues are piling on and energizing voters.”

Fletcher says anti-insurance could become the deciding straw in future Louisiana races.

“I don’t know what will happen in two years, but I can easily imagine the debate boiling down to blowing up (the insurance industry) versus reform. The key will be who can capture the zeitgeist the best.”

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