Gwen Collins-Greenup

Gwen Collins-Greenup, D-Clinton, and state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, during an Oct. 2 Secretary of State's forum at the Greenwell Springs Baptist Church.

Jazz musicians often use recognizable melodies as their base from which they improvise their way to new interpretations.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that in the birthplace of jazz, politics often transforms familiar themes. That certainly was the case Tuesday when Louisiana voters went along with the dark timbre of the midterm referendum on a combative president and like the rest of the country showed up in high numbers at the polls.

The twist came in the secretary of state’s race when a largely unknown preacher’s kid with about $1,600 garnered more votes to win a slot in the Dec. 8 statewide runoff than U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who spent about $10 million, polled in the 2015 gubernatorial primary.

After a short and lackluster race to replace Tom Schedler, who resigned in May over sexual harassment allegations, little-known Gwen Collins-Greenup, D-Clinton, got 289,097 votes to win a spot in the runoff against interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, R-Baton Rouge, who polled only 9,560 votes more with 298,657.

She left her job handling routine paperwork at the East Feliciana Parish School Board to run for the state’s third highest position. Her candidacy was largely ignored. Collins-Greenup wasn’t invited to many forums, like the one sponsored by the Press Club of Baton Rouge, because she had raised so little money. The state party, local partisan organizations and unions all backed her Democratic opponent, Renée Fontenot Free. Most of the attention focused on the six Republican candidates.

Baton Rouge pollster John Couvillon prefers a weather analogy: “It was a perfect storm.”

First, Louisiana voters from both parties were energized by the national coverage of the congressional midterms. This state’s incumbent congressmen were safe and were never expected to contribute to the calculus that would decide which party controlled the U.S. House of Representatives. Nevertheless, nearly half the state’s 2.99 million voters participated.

Then, at the top of that ballot was the “low information” secretary of state’s race with aspirants who couldn’t raise enough money to get their names known.

Ardoin’s name was first in alphabetical order and Collins-Greenup was the first Democrat listed. Plus, she was the only African-American in the race.

That many voters looked down the list of secretary of state candidates and made gut decisions, at least to Couvillon, is proved by the 137,050 votes, 9 percent of the total cast, for Metairie attorney Thomas J. Kennedy III, a Republican. Kennedy spent little, if any, time on the campaign trail and never raised enough money to have to file financial disclosures. “I think a reasonable argument can be made that his last name accounted for most of his votes,” Couvillon said, noting that a president and three senators, including the current one from Louisiana, share the Kennedy name.

Similarly, in a state where about a third of the voters habitually pull Democratic levers, Collins-Greenup benefited from being the first name with a “D” on the ballot.

And race also played a role.

African-Americans make up the majority of the Democratic Party with 724,125 of the 1.28 million registered Democratic voters.

In the 712 precincts, out of 3,910 total, where black voters make up 70 percent or more of the population, Collins-Greenup received about 91,000 votes, roughly half of the 182,000 cast in those precincts. Free got about 33 percent, and the remainder went to the other seven candidates on the primary ballot, Couvillon said.

“I’m not really sure how many people even knew I was African-American or even who I was,” Collins-Greenup said. She attributes her success to shaking hands on the streets and at community events, saying that nearly all the voters she met didn’t know about the election but appreciated — and perhaps remembered — personally meeting one of the candidates.

Collins-Greenup also had an edge in that her father is the longtime pastor of Riverside Baptist Church near Norwood in East Feliciana Parish.

The central role churches play in the social lives of many African-Americans is often overlooked, said Albert Samuels, a political scientist at Southern University.

“The churches have always been a good organizing base,” Samuels said. In addition to services, the churches hold many dinners and events that bring together people active in the community. It’s an introduction from the pulpit or over a meal, where a candidate can stand out, particularly when other unknowns share the ballot.

“As the only African American on the ballot, she made an impressive showing and got into to the runoff, but I think that’s where it ends,” Samuels said, acknowledging that Louisiana is a conservative red state with a white majority. “It’s good to get into the runoff, but we still haven’t elected an African-American statewide. I see nothing to break to that trend.”

Clarification: The Oct. 28 “Political Horizons” column quoted Lane Grigsby as saying that U.S. Sen. John Kennedy hasn’t passed any legislation yet. Kennedy’s office listed 25 pieces of legislation in which he’s been involved, 21 of which are working their way through the legislative process. Four of those bills, while not including Kennedy as lead sponsor, included language he sponsored that President Donald Trump signed into law.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.