SADOW: Party, Not Sex, Is What Matters In Louisiana’s Legislative Choices

In Louisiana, it’s not the sex of the candidate that matters, but their issue preferences.

The Baton Rouge Advocate’s Mark Ballard recently wrote a semi-lament about the relatively low rates of women winning election to the state Legislature. According to him, great anticipation existed that this election cycle could turn out as “the year of the woman,” with females making significant gains in the number of seats won to drag Louisiana up from the bottom of proportion of women elected to legislative seats.

Instead, not much progress in the way of numbers look set to occur. The present legislature has nine Republicans and eight Democrats among women representatives, and the Senate has two female Republicans and three such Democrats. After the runoff round concludes, likely Republicans will increase by two to 11 while Democrats could hold even at eight, while in the Senate probably the GOP will increase by one to three with Democrats maintaining three.

Ballard wrote that these general election results ran against the grain for state legislative elections last year, and he asked around for potential reasons why. My political science colleague Prof. Pearson Cross guessed that “[women] need to be better funded. They need more name recognition.” Mary-Patricia Wray, who came to fame by playing a major role in Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards’ win-from-nowhere in 2015, blamed too many male consultants who allegedly botched female candidate messages: “Women need to think about how best to tell their stories.”

But the data tell otherwise, because a subset of female candidates did draw disproportionately substantial resources and rack up widespread name recognition, apparently telling “their stories” effectively. What they had in common: they were Republicans and conservatives.

With several legislative contests involving women still outstanding (including a couple of interparty clashes between women), the win rate for Republican women is about half, while for Democrats it’s only around a quarter. (Additionally, four Republican women ran unopposed, with three female Democrats enjoying the same.) If anything, in the runoff phase the GOP rate likely will increase while that for Democrats will decline.

More tellingly, in interparty matchups featuring at least one female from one major party against at least one male from the other, Democrats who were female won only one of 13 races (Rep. Melinda White, an incumbent, in Bogalusa), with a few to be decided but with them likely to win just one more. In contrast, GOP women won four of eight such contests with another on the horizon, and in two that they lost other male Republicans triumphed.

Reviewing the results at the legislative level for Emerge Louisiana – a group that holds itself out as a vehicle to train “Democratic women” as candidates – confirms that party and ideology make a big difference. The group trotted out 18 Democrats for these offices, including three-term state Rep. Pat Smith running for a Senate post. Of them, none won in a matchup against a Republican, four made it to a runoff against another Democrat (in one case another female), and four more made it to a runoff against a Republican (in one instance against a woman) where all are likely to lose.

To sum it all up, gains that women probably will make in this election cycle in Louisiana will come only from the Republican side. This is because Democrats remain profoundly out of touch with the best interests of Louisianans. In the aggregate, voters are not fools and Republicans will have made record legislative gains after the runoff because the electorate often votes in its own self-interest. A large proportion of female Democrats losing happened not because of a lack of enthusiasm behind women candidates generally, but because they did not represent the views of the majority on the issues in most cases.

If you want women to increase their numbers in the Louisiana Legislature, find more conservative females to run. They will accumulate the resources and convey agendas that win elections. Blaming relatively low female numbers on other exogenous factors betrays faulty understanding of Louisiana’s electoral dynamics.

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