With the fiscal cliff under control for at least a few years, legislators and the governor took off on vacation leaving the State Capitol quiet, at least as far as governing issues go.
But the world of politics never seems to sleep.
Robert Johnson of Marksville, chairman of the House's Democratic caucus, was in basement offices poring over demographic analytics trying to figure out how the Democrats and moderates can maintain a large enough minority in the 2019 elections to keep a seat at the table.
Johnson’s goal is to keep 39 of the House seats Democratic, “and maybe pick up two or three more.” He’s using the same strategy developed by John Bel Edwards when the governor was head of the House Democratic caucus.
“We’re hyper-localizing our races,” Johnson said. That means Democratic candidates in districts outside of secure urban areas will jettison some of the national party platforms — pushing instead anti-abortion and gun rights viewpoints — while reminding voters of their support for local institutions that employ local constituents.
All 144 House and Senate members will be on the ballot in 2019 — about a third of those seats will have no incumbent.
Republicans have made no secret that they will seek effective control of the House, which will require picking up nine seats to hit 70 — a two-thirds majority. Attorney General Jeff Landry, as leader of Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, has set his sights on drumming out moderates from the Republican majority in the state Senate, where 16 of the 39 senators are term limited. It was the Senate that enforced the deal that retained a portion of the sales taxes that were set to expire to more fully fund services lawmakers didn’t want to cut.
“They're Republicans in name only,” Landry recently told the USA Today Network. “We don't believe the Senate reflects the conservative views of the state.”
The state’s electorate has skewed Republican for more than a decade. Republican presidential candidates have won Louisiana after 1996. Both U.S. senators and all the congressmen but the one running from a minority-majority district are Republican, as are all the agency executives elected statewide, except the governor. Both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature have long been majority GOP.
Looking at the numbers, pundits predict a sea change that will make the 2020 Louisiana Legislature far more conservative.
But the math is only part of the political equation, says Baton Rouge pollster John Couvillon.
“I think Republicans will have real difficulty achieving 70 (in the House) and electing more conservative Republicans in the Senate,” he told The Advocate last week. Despite the math and partisan campaigning, politics is still about candidates.
True, a handful of House seats are held by Democrats in districts that voted for President Donald Trump in large margins — mostly between Interstate 10 and Alexandria.
Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, a Democratic retired schoolteacher, represents parts of Allen, Beauregard and Calcasieu parishes where 80 percent of the voters backed Trump and voted GOP in down-ballot races. But Hill, now term-limited, has weathered those challenges in a seat that she and her husband, Coach Herman Ray Hill, have held since 1992.
In rural communities and smaller towns, a personal relationship with the legislators trumps ideological inclinations, Couvillon said. Where the candidates stand on how to balance the budget means less to voters who know their elected officials from church and pass time with them at the grocery store.
In more populated areas, politics is less personal. Identities are built through advertising and social media, tending toward ideological catchphrases. Polls show that in the close-in Livingston and Ascension suburbs of Baton Rouge, most voters can’t name their state representatives and senators, Couvillon said.
The math kicks in where voters cast ballots based primarily on the “D” and “R” behind candidate names.
House districts were drawn in 2011 to maximize, where possible, the chances for Republican candidates. But the population of Louisiana is such that 70 districts could not be drawn to be overwhelmingly white and conservative. That leaves a half-dozen districts where candidates must run more toward the center to be elected, Couvillon said.
Where the House districts were Balkanized by philosophy, the redistricting goal of the larger Senate districts was to protect incumbents in 2011. Apart from the district of term-limited Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, which backed Trump with 70 percent of the vote, conservatives will have a hard row to hoe in running more hard-line candidates.
Some change in the makeup of the Legislature is likely, but a sea change? Couvillon isn’t betting on that. “Really, success for the Republicans all depends on whom they field as candidates,” he said.
Email Mark Ballard at email@example.com.