It’s a testament to Louisiana’s offbeat political culture and obscurant election regime that House Democrats could have any meaningful influence in the next legislative term starting in 2020.
This fall, voters put 68 Republicans into the House of Representatives, leaving just 35 Democrats and two no-party legislators. That’s an all-time low for Democrats and an all-time high for Republicans since 1880.
Yet in the race for Speaker of the House, a candidate for whom two-thirds of the votes for could come from Democrats with just a smattering of GOP supporters might capture that office. In a radio interview last week, Republican state Rep. Alan Seabaugh described a situation where GOP state Rep. Clay Schexnayder could win with this coalition over Republican state Rep. Sherman Mack, who has the backing of most and the more conservative Republicans in the incoming chamber. Later this week, chamber Republicans will meet to hash out the party’s presumed choice.
Dissension over Mack comes in part from his day job as a trial lawyer. GOP legislators with few exceptions favor sweeping tort reform that would bring the state’s laws in this areas in line with that of other states that have much lower automobile insurance premiums, and some fear Mack may not put his full weight behind that effort.
But dissent over that one issue threatens to win a battle and lose the war. If the combination said to back Schexnayder succeeds, Democrats would expect a large payoff in committee chairmanships, to the point that would scuttle much of the Republican agenda of lower taxes, smaller government, reduced regulation, and increased personal responsibility for beneficiaries of welfare programs.
Those advocating this leadership outcome can point to traditional power-sharing arrangements between the two parties. Decades ago, with essentially only Democrats in the Legislature (the House didn’t get into double-digit numbers of Republicans until 1980), factional conflict occurred between populists and reformers. When that sorted itself out with reformers typically becoming Republicans and newcomers overwhelmingly elected as Republicans, a system continued where chamber power reflected the balance between those groups.
As a result, historically the minority party had some committee chairmanships. Last year, despite a three-fifths GOP advantage, Democrats held four of the 16, only one of which was among the most important and led by a Democrat who usually crossed party lines on fiscal issues. Back in 2004, when Democrats had about the same proportion of seats as Republicans do now, the GOP had the gavel on three committees, only one of which ranked as an important panel.
Regardless of which Republican helms the House through 2023, it wouldn’t be counterproductive of the party’s agenda to hand out a couple of low-profile chairmanships to Democrats. But were the alleged Schexnayder coalition to triumph, Democrats would demand of him several chairmanships and some major ones, because they provided most of his support. Such an outcome would thwart completely the will of the majority.
Although not likely, such a scenario becomes imaginable only because of the state’s aberrant nonpartisan blanket primary system. With no actual party nominations, across the 105 lower chamber seats this likely produces a few more moderate winners in the place of conservatives than under a system where candidates first must procure a party nomination, then face off against all other such nominees and no party contenders. This deviance happens as parties and their identifiers can’t punish those candidates who appropriate their label despite having a significant number of issue preferences contrary to party elites and its mass base.
More than anything, this accountability problem in the state’s political culture has made Louisiana political parties the weakest and least meaningful in the country, and prevents a strong organization that can penalize lawmakers with its label who sell out the party. Until that situation changes, even when the electorate gives a party a huge mandate as happened in 2019, its ability to carry out that agenda will be compromised and potentially even neutralized, thereby mocking the principle of majority rule and continuing that “unique” – and not in a good way – culture.