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.