Like most other southern states, Louisiana has gone from a longtime Democratic stronghold to majority Republican at both the local and national level. But the Bayou has never been a straightforward traditional Dixie state, instead existing as a unique multicultural marshland, so its political transformation has not entirely traveled the path laid out by the Nixon Southern Strategy.
Sure, Louisiana’s own shift was in part reflective of the national political realignment political, but that only set conditions for potential changes; it took several distinct events to actually put the forces in motion. Lamar Jackson, the progressive journalist and publisher of the Bayou Brief, outlined those events in a recent conversation with Progressives Everywhere, and first pointed to the Jungle Primary system put in place by Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards.
Edwards’s goal was to cut off opposition in partisan primaries, protecting what was then a Democratic majority. The then-governor did not see the political winds starting to change around him and he certainly did not see two decades into the future, when Republicans would push for constitutional changes that would further weaponize the new primary system.
Before he became infamous for his particular tastes in DC, David Vitter was a crusading state senator who successfully pushed for term limits in the legislature. After a three-term limit was enacted in 1997, the clock began ticking on long-time Democratic incumbents. By the mid-aughts, as some Democrats were seeing their careers expire, Vitter teamed with deep-pocketed donors to pick off others who still had some time left in office. He formed Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, a big-money PAC devoted to buying Baton Rouge, and threw his weight around.
“They poured millions of dollars into this and they went to vulnerable, incumbent Democrats who were not yet term-limited, and they said to them, ‘If you switch parties, we will gladly not interfere with your reelection campaign. And if you don’t, we’re gonna spend $100,000 running a candidate against you,’” Jackson explained. “And so they peeled off a number of people in the State House and the State Senate that way.”
Republicans took over the legislature in 2011 and with the help of Gov. Bobby Jindal (remember him?) they gerrymandered the hell out of the state. It has largely been a decade and a half of disastrous Republican control, save for some positives that have come out of the first term of current Gov. John Bel Edwards, like Medicaid expansion. The state is ranked dead last or damn near that in just about every traditional measure of income inequality, with 20% of its people living at or beneath the poverty line, 49th in the nation in food insecurity, and dead last in gender income inequality.
The Louisiana Democratic Party has been in a bit of disarray, but given the national climate and Edwards’ popularity, they’re hoping for an upswing in this November’s elections. While Vitter’s old PAC (now known as Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority) is run by Attorney General Jeff Landry and just as brutal as ever, there’s finally some energy on the Democratic side there, as well. They’ve identified at least two dozen flippable seats and it could grow from there.
Democrats have a shot at getting an early start on the blue wave on February 23rd, when a special election is being held for a number of legislative districts in each chamber. Most of the seats are solidly controlled by one party of the other, but the Baton Rouge-area 62nd, up for grabs after the exit of longtime Rep. Kenny Havard, is a swing district.