Louisiana’s Democrats: The Incredible Shrinking Party

July 16, 2005 marked a nadir for the Louisiana GOP. On that day, longtime Republican Secretary of State Fox McKeithen died from the severe injuries he suffered from a fall.

McKeithen was a unique politician, possessing what veteran politico Gus Weil called “a Democratic personality and a Republican philosophy”. McKeithen was the son of a two-term Democratic governor and won the office of Secretary of State as a Democrat before switching before the end of his first term.

McKeithen survived the disastrous 1991 election by a scant margin and was invited by Governor Edwin Edwards to rejoin the Democratic fold. McKeithen declined and would win re-election on three more times, including in 2003, when he once again was the lone Republican to win on the statewide level. After McKeithen’s death, Democrat Al Ater took over his post – giving the party a monopoly on all of the statewide elected offices for the first time since 1988.

Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco had control of the legislature, with each house run by Democrats of her liking, and was headed to a likely re-election. On August 28, 2005 Louisiana was the exception to the GOP southern rule.

And then Hurricane Katrina hit and the Louisiana Democratic Party started to die shortly thereafter.

The first tumble was in February 2006 with the resignation of Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley, who was succeeded by his deputy, ex-state representative Jim Donelon, a Republican.

In a special election that fall, Republican state senator Jay Dardenne won a special election to replace interim-Secretary of State Ater.

Things got progressively worse for the party in 2007. Recognizing the toll that her mismanagement of Katrina had taken on her political prospects, Blanco, with over $3,000,000 in her campaign warchest, announced she would not seek re-election.

Democrats, incredibly oblivious to Blanco’s weakness as a candidate, engaged in a mad scramble. The most logical candidate was Democratic US Representative Charles Melancon. The former sugar cane industry lobbyist had proven himself to be a strong campaigner winning two tough elections in a conservative district in a part of the state that provides the margin of victory for statewide candidates locked in close races.

But Melancon, whose aides had communicated that he was up to the fight, was unceremoniously trumped by former US Senator John Breaux.

Though a successful statewide candidate who enjoyed strong bipartisan support in his previous two reelection bids, Breaux faced in insurmountable obstacle: he wasn’t a resident of Louisiana anymore.

After a one-sided public debate on what constitutes Louisiana citizenship, the Breaux trial-balloon deflated as did his party’s chances of holding on to the governor’s mansion against Republican congressman Bobby Jindal, who was making his second try for the post.

Jindal scored 54% against eleven opponents, with only three of them being considered formidable. Jindal led his closest rival by 37 percentage points with the combined Democratic vote total being 30%, the party’s worst showing since Reconstruction.

Along with the Jindal landslide came a slew of new reform-oriented state representatives and senators. Despite lacking a majority in either house of the legislature, enough members of the GOP were elected to enable Jindal to anoint a Republican as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Prior to state qualifying, incumbent state treasurer John N. Kennedy, another potential Jindal opponent but whose relations with the state Democratic Party had been consistently stormy, joined the GOP.

Republican incumbents easily retained the offices of Secretary of State, Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner. A down ballot pick up truly underscored that these were different times when Republican veterinarian and state representative Mike Strain ousted Bob Odom for Agricultural Commissioner.

Though the post he held never registered high on the public’s radar screen, Odom was considered the de facto leader of the Louisiana Democratic Party by virtue of his tenure, which stretched back to the seventies, and his considerable influence on their state committee, which was greater than Blanco and Breaux’s combined.

2008 was a mixed bag for the Democrats in Louisiana. US Senator Mary Landrieu survived yet another tough re-election bid though John McCain lost his presidential bid in a rout, the Republican nominee won Louisiana’s nine electoral votes crushing Democratic candidate Barack Obama by a 59%-40% margin.

In congressional elections that were postponed due to Hurricane Gustav, Republicans narrowly held on to the Shreveport US Representative seat vacated by Jim McCrery and amazingly picked up the second congressional district when Joseph Cao, a refugee from South Vietnam’s fall to the Communists, ousted the scandal plagued Bill Jefferson.

If Katrina was the death rattle for the Democrats in state government, the Obama Administration would serve as the jazz funeral.

Between the poor economy, his bold advancement of an agenda disagreeable to the Louisiana electorate and his mishandling of the BP oil spill on the public relations and policy (the drilling moratorium) fronts, Obama poisoned the political waters for his fellow Democrats in Louisiana.

Mocked by conservatives for his accomplishment padding “jobs saved” boast, there’s no question that Obama managed to save at least one job: David Vitter’s.

The same day Vitter achieved the most remarkable political resurrection since Edwin Edwards’ 1991 comeback, the GOP picked up the lieutenant governor’s office for the first time since 1992 and the US Representative seat from the Third District. The only glimmer of good news for the Democrats that day was in the minority-majority Second District, where political reality reasserted itself at the expense of Cao.

Though qualifying for the 2011 elections isn’t until September, the bleeding hasn’t stopped for Louisiana Democrats. Party switches by state legislators have given the GOP its first post-Reconstruction majority in the state House of Representatives and a special election for a vacant senate seat could provide a Republican majority in the upper chamber by the end of the month.

And if not then, the GOP will almost assuredly have majorities in both houses of the legislature after the state elections are dispensed with.

And now for the final insult as word has emerged that the final Democratic holdout in statewide office, Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, will change his party affiliation before the end of the week.

If Caldwell, who opposed ObamaCare in his capacity as attorney general, does bolt, the Louisiana Democratic Party will continue its devolution into what the Louisiana GOP was during the Charlton Lyons era- a regional entity, not a state force.

With 2011 not looking to fare any better for Democrats than 2010 and her capacity to deliver for her state undermined by the current Democratic White House, it’s unlikely Mary Landrieu will be a US Senator in 2015, either by her choice or that of the voters.

In 1972, new registrants were warned that if they joined the Republican Party, they would have no vote because almost all races would be decided in the closed Democratic primary.

Thirty-nine years later in a very different political environment it would seem that a Democratic politician with statewide ambitions has no chance.

Mike Bayham is the publisher of MikeBayham.blogspot.com, where this piece originally appeared.



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