Hey! No Peaking!

Has Louisiana’s Republican Party peaked in its electoral influence?

A couple of pieces – one at the Times-Picayune and the other at Jeff Sadow’s site, argue yes.

Sadow

…it seems GOP gains at best will be marginal, which would seem to show that the tide that recently had swept so strongly in the Republican direction perhaps has hit its apogee.

The Picayune’s Bill Barrow

But Saturday’s primary results in several legislative districts suggest that the GOP rise has approached its peak, as a near perfect performance by all House and Senate incumbents helped white Democrats withstand challenges from Republicans backed by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Gov. Bobby Jindal and the conservative business lobby.

The results have implications for Jindal’s second-term agenda, as the GOP is left short of the two-thirds majorities needed for some sweeping legislative measures. Republicans failed to notch a single victory over their top five targeted House Democrats or in three Senate districts, two occupied by incumbents.

The GOP will control 24 of 39 Senate seats, two short of the supermajority. Republicans have claimed 54 seats in the 105 member House, but a sweep of the pending runoffs would leave them 63.

The star witness for Barrow’s story is Jon Bel Edwards, the state representative from Amite who chairs the House Democrat Caucus…

“This greatly exceeded the expectations from many people – not me – given the current political environment,” said House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards of Amite. “I attribute this to the hard work of our Democratic incumbents, not just in this campaign but for the last four years.

“They endured a barrage of all kinds of negative attacks,” Edwards said, referring to mail pieces trying to link Democratic legislators with President Barack Obama and other unpopular national Democrats. “But the kind of attacks that worked around the country last year did not work in Louisiana.”

Edwards is correct that Democrat incumbents survived challenges from Republicans backed by business groups and Sen. David Vitter’s Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority in almost every legislative race. Prominent Democrats Ben Nevers, Eric Lafleur and Gary Smith survived Senate challenges, with Lafleur and Smith winning with more than 60 percent of the vote. Nevers barely survived.

And in the House, GOP challengers like Fenn French, who took on Democrat Neil Abramson in uptown New Orleans, and Anthony Emmons, who challenged Jack Montoucet in Acadia Parish, fell far short.

But it’s extremely difficult to knock off an incumbent. It’s even harder to knock off an incumbent in a district where the demographics are in his favor. And it’s almost impossible to knock off an incumbent when he’s got more money than you do.

Even with $1 million raised and spent by LCRM and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Victory Fund, the Republican challengers in the seats Barrow points to as examples of residual Democrat strength didn’t have the cash the Democrats had in most cases.

For example, Smith handily beat Garrett Monti in Senate District 19. Yes, LCRM dropped a bunch of mail pieces for Monti. But a look at the campaign finance disclosures leading up to Election Day indicates Smith spent well over $100,000 – perhaps as much as $200,000 or more – on the race. Monti’s campaign expenses appear to have been $50,000 or less.

Smith certainly appeared beatable given the FEMA trailer dirt covering him and his inane campaign strategy to tie himself to Jindal – who endorsed Monti – but he’s a product of a deeply-entrenched Democrat machine in that district which has resisted any Republican attempts to break it down. It’s very disappointing for conservatives that Monti couldn’t win that seat but realistically it was always going to be difficult to knock Smith off.

There’s a reason folks at the state GOP fumed last month when LABI co-endorsed Smith and Monti in the race. The LABI people looked at that district and recognized that if they went whole-hog for Monti they were poking a grizzly bear. Endorse Monti, he loses, and Smith has four years to exact revenge. You endorse Monti when you check out that district and get the impression Smith can lose. LABI didn’t see that as a particularly strong possibility.

And then there’s Lafleur, who had over $160,000 on hand 10 days out from Saturday’s election. How much did his Republican opponent Doc Miller have? How about $14,000?

Mizell very nearly beat Nevers. She had spent less than $4,000 three weeks out from election day. She took in a pretty good chunk of change in the last week of the campaign and presumably spent it, but we’re not talking about any more than $25,000 at maximum (it’s hard to tell until the final disclosure forms are filed). Nevers, on the other hand, had spent $36,000 by Oct. 2 and had $77,000 at the ready – plus he picked up $84,000, including a $50,000 check from the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, and got an in-kind donation of $28,440 for a mail piece from the SDCC, in the last week of the campaign.

In other words, Mizell scared the pants off Nevers and would have beaten him but he was able to ring alarm bells and got the Democrats to ride to his rescue. Had Mizell been able to bring more resources to the table to match Nevers (or at least chop the odds down a little), she could have knocked him off. But Mizell didn’t have a full-time campaign manager, and she didn’t have a full-time consultant either.

We’re now moving into runoff season, and we’ll have several races that will tell the tale of how many legislative seats Republicans actually pick up. The Senate is decided; it will have 24 Republicans and 15 Democrats, and of those 24 GOP seats at least four of them (John Alario, John Smith – assuming he beats James David Cain in the runoff, Norby Chabert and Jody Amedee) are unmitigated RINO’s. In other words, the Senate is still problematic for conservatives, though perhaps slightly less so than before the election.

But in the House, an already very strong GOP body looks like it will get stronger. Republicans hold 54 seats as of right now, with 49 Republicans already elected and five more seats going to a Republican-vs.-Republican runoff. There are now 33 elected Democrats and six more intra-Dem runoffs for a total of 39 seats in that camp.

And in the runoffs, one pits a Republican against an independent, two pit Democrats against independents and seven will see Republicans against Democrats. Assuming the independents don’t win, which is a sloppy assumption to make but in the interest of time I’ll make it anyway, it’s 55-41 for the GOP with the potential to be 62-41.

To get 63 seats would be an unqualified success. Is it realistic? Well, let’s look at the runoffs…

  • In District 10, Democrat Gene Reynolds led a four-person field with 39 percent. Republican Jerri Ray de Pingre’ had 26 percent. The rest of the vote went to two other Republicans. It’s hard to see Reynolds, who got $41,000 of in-kind contributions from the Democrat Party to get all of 39 percent in a House race in Minden and Springhill, capturing 11 percent out of the 35 the other Republicans got. That looks like a GOP pickup.
  • In District 23, Republican Rick Nowlin is in an awfully tough district, and he’s in a runoff with Democrat Kenny Cox. The district is better than 60 percent black, so Nowlin as a white Republican would seem to be at a disadvantage. But there is talk that third-place finisher Ralph Wilson, a Democrat former Army colonel, might be supporting Nowlin, who had pulled over 60 percent of the black vote when he ran in 2007 (albeit in a district that didn’t look like the one he’s in now). What’s more, turnout in District 23 was 47.5 percent Saturday, owing to a red-hot local race for sheriff. That might not hold up in a runoff. So this might be a winnable race after all.
  • District 39, the Carencro-based seat vacated by Democrat Bobby Badon, saw Republican Don Menard, a former St. Landry Parish president, best Democrat Stephen Ortego 44-35. This one might well be up in the air, as third-place finisher Jamie Arnaud was an independent touting pro-small business policies. But it’s usually a conservative district, and it’s a far larger stretch to imagine Ortego winning it than Menard. It looks like this one is a GOP pickup.
  • District 56 could be the real bellwether as to where the peak of GOP control lies or whether the party has the ability to gain seats beyond this election. That district is Smith’s House district, the one he’s vacating to move into Senate 19. And two Republicans – Greg Miller and Emile Garlepied – combined for 61 percent of the vote Saturday, with Democrat Ram Ramachandran pulling 39 percent. Miller, an attorney and son of former state rep Ralph Miller, came agonizingly close to winning the race outright – he received 6,532 of 13,173 votes, or just 109 short of a majority. He’s a cinch to win the seat in the runoff.
  • In District 62, which is being vacated by term-limited Republican Tom McVea, Republican oil and gas exec Kenny Havard is matched up against Democrat West Feliciana Parish police jury president Ken Dawson. There were five candidates in a free-for-all race, and the three Republicans combined for 55 percent of the vote (of which Havard picked up 30 percent). Dawson bested fellow Democrat Ronnie Jett 23-22 for a spot in the runoff. This one will likely go to Havard.
  • In Livingston Parish-based District 81, Republican Clay Schexnayder will be taking on Democrat Kent Hull in the runoff of what was a crazy primary. But of the five candidates in the primary, Hull was the only Democrat. He got just 26 percent to Schexnayder’s 41. And one of the district’s more prominent constituents, Trina Edwards, wife of former governor Edwin Edwards, has thrown in behind Schexnayder. For better or worse, he’s a cinch.
  • District 103, based in St. Bernard Parish, will see Republican Ray Garofalo taking on Democrat Chad Lauga. It’s a conservative district which is nevertheless represented by Democrat Reed Henderson at present, but that’s likely to change. Garofalo and fellow Republican Mike Bayham combined for 55 percent of the vote, with Garofalo leading the pack with 31 percent. Lauga had 27 percent in the primary. The Democrat isn’t without funds, but Garofalo, who is largely self-financing, has virtually bottomless pockets. The GOP wins this one comfortably in all likelihood.

Other than Nowlin, it’s difficult to see Democrats winning any of these races – which means Republicans likely will hold 61 seats – or maybe even 62 seats, if Nowlin can manage to win – in the House in three weeks. That’s not a huge advance over the 57 they held before the elections, but it’s still an advance. And once you get close to 60 percent of the seats while holding just a quarter of the voter registration, you’re getting close to your limit.

To get any further, the GOP is going to have to show an ability to govern in a transformationally positive way. Jindal’s 66 percent showing on Saturday and the inability of Democrats to even contest a statewide race indicate Republicans are making progress in that regard, but to get a two-thirds majority in the legislature they’re going to have to earn it in the statistics.

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