Losing Louisiana to the GOP

While the rest of America gets more Democratic, Katrina -- and George W. Bush -- may have turned the state bright red. Can John Breaux save the Democrats?

Published February 20, 2007 3:00PM (EST)

Last Friday, Feb. 16, brought word that former Democratic Sen. John Breaux may come out of retirement to run for Louisiana governor this fall. For state Democrats, the possibility that Breaux will run is both good news and bad news. The good news is that Breaux would be a formidable candidate. The bad news is that so dim are the reelection prospects of incumbent Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco -- and so dire are the fortunes of Louisiana Democrats in general -- that Breaux's candidacy is even under discussion.

Data from November polls compiled by SurveyUSA showed Blanco and Missouri Republican Matt Blunt tied as the fifth least popular governors in the country, with 19 percent net disapproval scores. The likely Republican nominee for Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, lost only narrowly to Blanco in 2003, and bounced back to win a congressional seat in 2004. He would be an even stronger candidate this time around. "Jindal is very dangerous to Blanco, especially if everyone perceives it as simply a rematch," says Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University and author of "Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics." "The polls show him ahead big." Not surprisingly, state Republicans are licking their chops. "The GOP is very organized and aggressively fundraising," says a top Louisiana Democrat, who asked not to be named. "They will be well financed and looking to use a big gubernatorial win to catapult other GOP wins down ballot." Louisiana is, in short, perhaps the only state in the nation where George W. Bush's policies may end up creating a permanent Republican majority.

A key reason for the troubles facing Blanco and her party is the massive out-migration of New Orleans-area Democrats in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The storm, and the administration's botched handling of it, literally drove Democrats out of Louisiana. Though a perfect estimate is impossible, analysts who follow the state closely project the net decline for Democrats in New Orleans Parish to be somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 voters. In 2002, Blanco beat Jindal by 55,000 votes statewide, but nearly all of that margin came from the city. She won Orleans Parish by 50,000 votes. "It's doubtful that there are enough Democrats left to provide the wide margin of victory in Orleans Parish that Democrats have traditionally relied upon for victory in statewide elections," says Bob Mann, who served as former Sen. Breaux's state director and, later, Blanco's communications director. "That means candidates like Blanco will have to increase their margins elsewhere, in regions of the state that aren't as reliably Democratic. That could make for a very tough election season for almost any Democrat running statewide, but even tougher for someone with the governor's dismal poll numbers." It may also mean that Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu will be out of a job come November 2008.

It was not long ago that Louisiana, like a soothing balm applied to an injury, was the state that gave bruised and battered Democrats some small measure of post-election relief. In December 2002, a month after Republicans secured a sufficient number of U.S. Senate seats to forge a Jim Jeffords-defection-proof majority, Democrats were buoyed when Landrieu eked out a four-point runoff win to retain her Senate seat. A year later, just 11 days after Democrats lost the only two other gubernatorial races of the 2003 off-year cycle, in Kentucky and Mississippi, Blanco's victory over Jindal prevented a GOP sweep. (Among Louisiana's many political quirks is its "jungle primary" system. All candidates compete in an early general election, and if no one breaks 50 percent, there is a runoff. In practice, it means the leading Democrat and Republican often face each other in a second election in late November or early December.)

In fact, however, Louisiana was trending away from Democrats even before the hurricane. Bill Clinton carried the state in both 1992 and 1996. But Al Gore -- who spent little time there, despite the fact that his campaign manager, Donna Brazile, knows the state's politics better than almost anyone -- received just 45 percent of the vote in 2000. Four years later John Kerry slipped to 42 percent. So recently a swing state, Louisiana will be on neither party's 2008 target list.

If Louisiana once provided the Democrats' silver lining in cloudier moments, it is perhaps fitting that this most contrarian of states is now trending away from Democrats at the very moment they have regained majorities in both chambers of Congress, among governors and in the state legislatures. What's more, it is ironic that Hurricane Katrina -- the event that finally demolished the claims of governing competence long advanced by George W. Bush and national Republicans -- has accelerated the collapse of the state's Democrats.

As Gallup's latest survey of partisan self-identification reveals, largely because of Katrina Louisiana is the only state in which Democrats lost ground relative to Republicans since 2005, reclassifying it from a Democratic-leaning state to "competitive." And the news could get worse for Democrats. Demographers expect the post-Katrina exodus to cost Louisiana, which was already losing population before the hurricane, one House seat following the 2010 census and reapportionment. With Democrats presently holding just two of the delegation's seven seats, redistricting may cost them one of their two. They already lost one to a party switch and may lose another to the federal judicial system.

Just five years ago, Democrats had three representatives from Louisiana. Upstate Rep. Rodney Alexander was a Democrat until he left the party in 2002. He infuriated Breaux and other state Democrats by switching his affiliation to Republican and filing for reelection at the very last minute, thereby preventing Democrats from having a chance to respond.

Then came the sordid tale of African-American Rep. William Jefferson, of Louisiana's New Orleans-centered 2nd District, who is under federal investigation for bribery and was found with bundles of cash stowed in his freezer.

Jefferson got only 30 percent of the vote this past November, forcing a December runoff with second-place finisher Karen Carter. Many Washington Democrats were privately pulling for Carter, but to no avail: Jefferson easily won the runoff, thus complicating Speaker Nancy Pelosi's task of juggling her need for support from the Congressional Black Caucus while delivering on her election-year promises for ethics reform on Capitol Hill. "I think Jefferson's predicament hurts the party nationally and discourages Democratic activists within New Orleans and Louisiana," says one Democrat with deep roots in the city's politics. "It also makes it impossible for New Orleans to have good active representation in the House at a time when the city needs someone to be fighting -- and fighting hard -- for resources to aid its recovery."

Come 2012, Jefferson or his successor could be the last Louisiana Democrat in the U.S. House. Most of the Democrats who have left Louisiana since Katrina came from Jefferson's district. The party now controls both chambers of the state Legislature, but that could change by 2010. A recent study by Louisiana State University at Shreveport professor Jeff Sadow suggests that term limits may help Republicans capture at least one chamber of the state Legislature this fall. If the GOP runs the redistricting process, Republicans could well pack many of the state's remaining Democrats (particularly black ones) into the 2nd District.

That would help Republicans pick off the only other Democratic congressman still standing, 3rd District Rep. Charlie Melancon. One of the last of a dying breed of white Southern Democrats, Melancon is the Republicans' most obvious target. In 2006, he won reelection to a second term with just 55 percent in a district that tilted slightly Republican in the past two presidential contests. The only encouraging note for Democrats is that St. Bernard Parish, the jurisdiction in Melancon's district hardest hit by Katrina, was Republican leaning. Still, the consensus from several Louisiana experts with whom I consulted is that there is the possibility that the current five-to-two congressional delegation advantage for Republicans could become five to one by 2012.

Looking ahead, trouble also looms for Landrieu. The two-term senator, who made Playboy's 2000 list of "Washington's sexiest power brokers" and was considered by some a possible 2004 vice-presidential pick, confronts an uphill battle for reelection in 2008.

In 2002, Landrieu failed to get the requisite majority in November, forcing her runoff with Republican Suzanne Terrell, which Landrieu won with a mere 52 percent of the vote. "For a Democrat who has always been in very competitive, close races, the demographic changes in Louisiana don't bode well for Landrieu," says Mann. "The Democratic presidential nominee, especially if it's a liberal who is unacceptable to large numbers of voters in Louisiana, could pose additional problems for Landrieu. If Jindal is governor and the Legislature is in Republican hands, she'll face reelection in a much more hostile environment than six years ago. Last time, she had John Breaux to campaign for her. This time, her colleague is David Vitter, who will not sleep until he sees her replaced by another Republican."

Louisiana is, at last, about to look a lot more like its Deep South neighbors politically. There has been something of an inverse relationship in recent presidential elections between the share of black voters and Republican performance. That is, the blacker the state, the bigger the Republican margins. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are all states with black populations close to or above a third, the highest percentage in the nation -- and not a Democratic senator, governor or, since 1992, Democratic electoral vote among them.

Along with Florida, Louisiana had been different, a state where multiracial coalitions propelled Clinton, Landrieu and Blanco to victories. In Louisiana, a black population of 32.5 percent made victory for Democrats possible. The post-Katrina question is whether the black population will remain large enough for Democrats to continue building such coalitions, especially if there is a backlash among white voters in the noncoastal portions of the state toward Blanco, controversial New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and state Democrats in general. Recent polls, however, are not promising, and they also show how resolutely racial party identification has become in the Deep South. The blacker the state, the more Republican the whites are.

Despite the "heckuva job" performance of the Bush administration during Katrina, the president's approval rating among whites in Louisiana -- 57 percent -- is tied for second best in the nation with Georgia and Idaho, trailing only Mississippi's 61 percent. The link between whiteness and Republicanism in the South is now so strong that it can even withstand a Category 5 hurricane. Now, without the tipping-point power of the Orleans Parish black electorate, Louisiana may well become the new Mississippi, which has two Republican senators and a Republican governor and hasn't given its electoral votes to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter.

Whatever the fate of the displaced people who are trying to move back to the state or to the city of New Orleans, the next two years will be vital to the future of Louisiana's Democrats. John Maginnis, who writes a regular column on state politics, recently summarized the situation. "Republicans may be in disarray in Washington," wrote Maginnis, "but they are on the march in Louisiana, aiming to make 2007 the year they take over." That's why many state Democrats are privately hoping the rumors about John Breaux running for governor are true. He may be the only person who can save the party.

By Thomas F. Schaller

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2008 Elections Bill Clinton Bobby Jindal George W. Bush Mary Landrieu