LA-House, LA-Gov, LA-Sen: Is the Louisiana Democratic Party Serious About Survival?

That’s the question that has been on my mind since having these dizzying special election results seared into my cortex last weekend:

On Saturday, February 24, there were three special elections for vacancies in the Louisiana House of Representatives.  All three seats were previously held by Democrats, and Democrats easily held on to two of these seats by capturing both run-off slots.  This was no surprise, as both of these retained seats were African-American majority districts.  The other seat, HD01, however, was not a sure thing for Democrats.  Louisianagirl, in her coverage last weekend, wrote:

Although it was previously held by a Democrat named Roy “Hoppy” Hopkins, who recently died of cancer, this open seat can be won by either party.  Indeed, the district has a tendency to vote for Republicans in federal races: John Kerry only received 32.28% of the vote in 2004; Kathleen Blanco received 44.15% of the vote in 2003; and Mary Landrieu received approximately 45.34% of the vote in 2002.  A populist Democrat who understand agricultural and infrastructural issues can win in this district that includes rural Caddo and Bossier Parishes, but it will be a difficult seat for Democrats to hold in November.

And here’s what she had to say about what was at stake:

LA-HD1 is what I consider to be a bellwether race.  If we hold it, we will hold the Louisiana House in November.  If we lose it, then we need to prepare ourselves for the fight of our political lives in November.  Watch the returns of this race, as this race will determine how hard Louisiana Democrats will have to fight if they want to hold on to their majorities in the state legislature.

So let’s put it all on the table: at a combined 27% of the vote, the two Democratic candidates in this special election did even worse than John Kerry’s performance in the district in 2004.  When the locals can’t break Kerry’s benchmark, you know that we’ve written a new definition for “rock bottom” in Louisiana.

So what happened?  By the looks of it, Republicans showed up ready to wrestle this seat to the ground, and Democrats simply did not.  Their candidate, “Jim” Morris, as a Caddo Parish Commissioner, had a high profile in the local government, while Hollier was something of an unknown.  Based on his experience alone, Morris easily snatched up the endorsement of the Shreveport Times, and the rest is written on the wall.  By not putting forth a proven candidate and funneling the appropriate resources to this race, the Louisiana Democratic Party is sending signals of apathy and resignation, rather than the do-or-die, balls-to-the-wall ethos that they will need to exhibit in order to come out of 2007 alive.

Having a drag like Gov. Kathleen Blanco at the top of the ticket this year would be bad enough for the Democratic majorities in the state legislature, but Louisiana Democrats will have to deal with another vulnerability: term limits.  As louisianagirl wrote in her authoritative diary on the subject, half of the 60 incumbent Democrats in the Louisiana House will face mandatory retirement after this year.  With only 53 seats needed to obtain control of the House, that leaves a lot of room for an aggressive, district-by-district challenge by a renewed Louisiana GOP in coordination with a strong top of the ticket challenge to Gov. Blanco.

The stakes of this are fairly high.  Without friendly control of the LA legislature, Democratic Rep. Charlie Melancon could see his U.S. House district, and his job security, go up in smoke due to creative redistricting by state Republicans.  On the other hand, if Democrats controlled the redistricting levers, Louisiana’s congressional delegation will almost assuredly lose at least one Republican member of the House in 2012, after the census readjusts the state’s representation to account for population loss.

Additionally, how does ceding certain “swing” districts to the Republicans bode for Democrats’ ability to retain the offices of Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Sen. Mary Landrieu?  Not well, I would argue.

If the Louisiana Democratic Party is serious about staying a relevant political force in the state after November, it has to aggressively defend these seats.  With the disturbing revelation that our one potential savior at the top of the ballot, former Senator John Breaux, is likely ineligible to run for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination after he registered to vote in Maryland after he retired in 2005, this defense is all the more crucial.  Just as the New York GOP put everything into holding the State Senate in a wave year, the Louisiana Democratic Party should be preparing something similar for the legislature.

The Louisiana Democratic Party has a shot at redemption coming up very quickly–the March 10th special election for the 94th House District. Louisianagirl contends that, with candidate Deborah Langhoff at the helm, this is a legitimate pick-up opportunity for Team Blue–one of only a precious few that Louisiana Democrats will see during this cycle.  Is the Louisiana Democratic Party doing all that it can to help her out?  Given what pitiful lengths they went to keep the 1st District competitive, I almost dread to hear the answer.

Race Tracker: LA-Gov | LA-Sen | LA-03

7 thoughts on “LA-House, LA-Gov, LA-Sen: Is the Louisiana Democratic Party Serious About Survival?”

  1. It’s important to keep a few things in mind.

    1) There is a long tradition of the Louisiana legislature NOT being organized along party lines. The governing coalitions there just aren’t cut that way. You’ve actually had Republicans like John Hainkel (who was both House Speaker and Senate President) holding the reins of power, even when their partisans were a minority in the chambers.

    2) We should be wary before we read too much into the results of a single state House race. That’s a tiny sample to draw conclusions from, especially a low-turnout off-cycle one.

    3) As to this House race, for those who don’t know Louisiana, this district is basically like East Texas – not friendly territory for many Democrats, and definitely not for the kinds of Democrats a lot of activists in the blogosphere hope to see elected.

    Now none of that is to say that the Democratic Party shouldn’t actively work to maintain its majority in the legislature. Of course it should. But we should keep in mind that that doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal in terms of the way that place is run. And with that in mind, it’s not surprising that a lot of people are more concerned with who wins the statewide offices.

  2. succinct diary on Louisiana politics, Jim.  Deborah Langhoff is running the type of campaign Louisiana Democrats should have ran in LA-HD1.  In fact, local pundits believe she and Jeb Bruneau will qualify for the runoff.  I quote Jeff Crouère:

    Controversy in District 94

    A special election will take place March 10 in state House District 94, a seat held for 30 years by Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans.

    Bruneau resigned, forcing a special election to fill the seat for the next few months. Another election will take place in the fall, and many in the district are raising concerns about the timing and cost of the special election, which has an estimated price tag of $120,000. Nothing else will be on the March 10 ballot, and critics believe the race could have easily been included with a judgeship election March 31.

    Joining Jeb Bruneau, Peppi’s son, are five other candidates, three Democrats and two Republicans, including attorney and former District A New Orleans City Council candidate Nick Lorusso. Deborah J. Langhoff is considered the most formidable Democrat because of her backing by District A Councilwoman Shelly Midura. Jeb is considered the favorite in the race, but a runoff is a strong possibility.

    House District 94 covers areas still heavily damaged from Katrina, including Lakeview, Lake Vista and City Park.


    Langhoff is receiving favorable press coverage, and her team is ready to fight.  I just hope everyone here wants to join in the effort.  Here is her website, where you can contribute and inquire about volunteer opportunities.

    Thank you for synthesizing my prolix and desultory diaries, James.

  3. The Louisiana Democratic Party suffers from the fact that it has, historically, been little more than the financial arm of the campaign of the highest office on the ballot in the next election. Our open primary system, instituted back in the 1970s diminished the importance of the party operation, but in the past five years or so, the problem has become acute.

    It’s been made worse by the fact that no Democratic presidential nominee has spent campaign funds in Louisiana after Labor Day since Bill Clinton won re-election in 1996. Into that vacuum stepped the Republican Party nominees, keeping their eyes on the prize of solidifying their version of the solid South.

    The precipitous decline of the state party, though, is apparent when you consider that we’ve had three state party chairmen over the past three years. Mike Skinner, a former U.S. Attorney from Lafayette, was made chairman in 2003. His term was noted for his disastrous handling of a contentious race between two Democrats in the 7th District Congressional District in 2004. As I’ve heard the story from people who had first-hand knowledge of the incident, Skinner allowed money raised for the Kerry campaign in 2004 (yes, we were raising money for the state campaign that Kerry refused to run) to be used to print and mail a sample ballot for that race that included the name of a white, conservative, female state senator and excluded an African-American, moderate state senator. The mailer appeared to constitute a party endorsement. The female state senator made the run off but lost the seat (for the first time in history) to a Republican.

    Skinner was forced to resign by the outcry from party loyalists, but serious damage was done to intra-party relations.

    He was succeeded by Jim Bernhard, CEO of the Shaw Group. Bernhard resigned shortly after Katrina and Rita hit, apparently worried that his role in the party would complicate the company’s ability to get federal recovery contracts.

    Bernhard was succeeded by Chris Whittington who was elected chairman by a coaltion led by trial lawyers who said they were tired of being used as ATM machines for politicians who didn’t back them once elected. Unfortunately, no new money has come into the party as a result. Money continues to follow candidates, rather than go to the party.

    The cumulative effect of open primaries and mismanagement is that the local party infrastructure is non-existent in most places. There are a few active Parish (county) Democratic Executive Committees, but the more general rule is that the committees are closed clubs — where they exist at all.

    In addition to working on Deborah Langhoff’s campaign, I’m also the lead organizer of a conference that will be held in Lafayette, LA, on Saturday, March 24. It’s called “d2d” (Democrat to Democrat). We’re trying to get online Democratic activists together with other traditional constituencies to focus on ideas that can serve as the basis for the formation of a platform for this fall’s elections.

    It’s not about the horse race, but it’s about why we run the race. What does a Democratic, people-centered response to the challenges facing our state look like? We’re looking at healthcare, energy, Katrina/Rita recovery, insurance, and secure elections. In the process, we hope to begin the process of rebuilding the party from the ground up (elections to parish and state executive committees take place in the spring of 2008).

    d2d Conference website

    Republicans and CONservatives have targeted our state for takeover this fall. Democrats posing as Republican-lite candidates are going to get swept off the decks. Democrats need to convince folks down there that they stand for something. That’s the road to rebuilding this party — not further re-arranging the deck chairs.

    Thanks to all of you for your interest in our state. The people of Louisiana hold Democratic values. They’re just waiting for candidates who’ll campaign like they believe in those values.

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