As Louisiana Democrats find themselves sliding into political oblivion, they find on offer two strategies to become meaningful again at the statewide level: adapt to the median voter’s issue preference, or to rely on subterfuge. Early indications are their hardheaded leaders will rely on the latter.
As the party as a whole, mimicking its national superstructure, has drifted away from the preferences of Louisiana’s majority, not surprisingly voters have turned away from it. It lost its legislative majorities shortly before the 2011 elections, not long before the switch by Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to the GOP gave the state all Republicans in statewide state elected offices. The year before, the U.S. House of Representatives delegation had gone all Republican except for the sole black-majority district in the state, and now with the rout suffered by Sen. Mary Landrieu last weekend in her bid for reelection, no one elected statewide is a Democrat. Keep in mind that two decades ago Democrats held all statewide elected offices, all but two U.S. House districts, and 85 percent of the seats in the Legislature.
Voting publics do not shift so radically in preferences, but party elites do, and thus if they wish to be more successful electorally they must persuade the public to vote for them – clearly unsuccessfully – or moderate their extremism in issue preferences. Yet as the campaigns of Landrieu and other Democrat competitors for House seats this fall – who endured defeats worse than Landrieu’s – showed, Democrat elites don’t exactly seem open to that.
This leaves one option, which apparently has been practiced by some already but recently got a high-profile tryout: using the Republican label at least in lower-profile contests to try to fool less attentive voters into thinking that candidate is closer to median voter preferences than he really is. The thinking is that as partisanship stands in as a shorthand to ideology, the label can make less attentive voters to think without questioning it that a candidate with that label must reflect those views, even if he doesn’t and in reality is a stealth Democrat. Trick enough of them, and you can win despite the majority of the jurisdiction rejecting your views.
That’s what Democrats tried with the Public Service Commission District 1 contest. Forest Bradley Wright, who does not live in either that district or in District 2 where two years ago he tried running as a liberal Democrat and got only 20 percent of the vote, this year in the former signed up as a Republican. With no change in issue preferences, he led the field with 38 percent in the general election, with incumbent Republican Eric Skrmetta a point behind. However, Skrmetta got it together and narrowly won the runoff, where turnout only dropped about 5 percent. Although the figures are not yet released, probably the runoff featured a more informed/Republican electorate and so Skrmetta, unquestionably a conservative, may not have eked out around 4,000-vote win had he dealt with the same electorate as in the general election.
While this did not succeed, fortunately for the citizenry, the strategic outlines became clarified. Since issue preferences must be muted to prevent the majority of less-informed voters who are genuine adherents to the label from catching on, the faux partisan comes up with something extraneous, even untrue, to give to them a reason to differentiate between same-labelled candidates who are (incorrectly) assumed to have roughly similar issue preferences. Wright’s tactic was to make false charges about Skrmetta’s honesty.
But you don’t have to be duplicitous to make this work. As the tide has shifted over the past several years, there’s evidence that several legislators who call themselves Republicans really have acted more as Democrats in their voting behavior, menaing they were able to pass themselves off in their districts as Republicans in their successful elections. A review of the Louisiana Legislature Log’s voting scorecards for this legislative term shows that five representatives and two senators who label themselves as Republicans actually voted much more like their Democrat colleagues.
Using the standard that voting records at least twice in the 2012-14 span were more on the liberal/populist side of the spectrum (a score below 50) indicated stealth Democrats, in the House state Reps. Chris Hazel, Mike Huval, Eddie Lambert, Sherman Mack, and Rogers Pope and in the Senate state Sens. Dale Erdey and Bob Kostelka fit the mold (Lambert in fact never got higher than 40 in any of these three session). Conservatives and reformers in these districts should consider mounting a challenge to those who don’t face term limits – Hazel, Huval, Mack, and Pope – or to these or the others if they seek another office, understanding that the lesser importance of these contests and therefore visibility of them means more effort must take place to expose their past votes away from conservative and reform preferences.
Yet the most blatant successful example of using the GOP label as cover for a leftist agenda belongs to Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Lottie Beebe. This 2011 contest got snafued from the start: reformer long-time incumbent Democrat Glenny Lee Buquet reluctantly ran again while anti-choice, pro-union, status-quo-supporting school bureaucrat Beebe challenged, cannily called herself a Republican. Hardly spending any money – and most of that from teacher unions – while Buquet did little campaigning, Beebe pulled the upset almost entirely on the basis of the labels. This was an entirely unforced error by Republicans, and hopefully they will have recruited for this contest next year at least one genuine GOP pro-choice, anti-union, reform-oriented candidate to prevent their label from being hijacked without resistance.
Given the closed-minded inflexibility of what passes for state Democrat leadership in Louisiana these days, for next year’s state and parish elections and beyond expect Democrat wolves in Republican sheep’s clothing to emerge as a theme of greater prominence. It will be up to Republicans and genuine candidates of that label to prevent them from getting away with it. It’s a housekeeping chore that comes with the territory when your opponents’ stubbornness otherwise makes them a permanent minority party.