This past weekend’s elections put the final touches on the takeover of Louisiana by the Republican Party.
At the statewide and parish level, the only contest settled in partisan fashion was the Public Service Commission District 1 race where incumbent Republican Eric Skrmetta won a third and final term, leaving the PSC with a 3-2 Republican majority. This complements the GOP majorities on the Louisiana Supreme Court and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and every other single statewide executive office save for that of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Last year, when Republicans swept to a seat more than a supermajority in the Senate and came up just two short of the same in the House, plus winning handily all but the governorship where Edwards squeaked out reelection, much comment occurred about these topline results. Almost unobserved was a quiet revolution in courthouses that began with sheriffs’ elections in 2019 and concluded with district attorney contests this fall.
For almost all parishes in the state that don’t elect a chief executive to go along with their parish councils, commissions, police juries, or in Orleans the New Orleans City Council, sheriffs have more executive power than any other parish officer. Besides the obvious criminal matters, sheriff’s departments (along with school districts) typically are among, if not the, largest employers in the parish and the sheriff also serves as the tax collector. Through these duties, ambitious sheriffs can build political empires within the parish’s boundaries, with their co-partisans better positioned to receive patronage and other lawful advantages.
Spanning back more than a century, a majority (and, for many decades, with unanimity) of sheriffs served as Democrats. After 2015 elections, they still held 36 of the 64 top law enforcement jobs of the parishes. Republicans had inched up to 21, and seven either called themselves independents or didn’t affiliate with a party.
The independent/no-party categories at the local level in the past couple of decades have become halfway homes for candidates trying to avoid negative connotations that a party label could bring. Given the political tides in the state, that has almost always meant in recent years residents in these categories are candidates in areas traditionally with a lot of registered white Democrats who wanted to differentiate themselves from the liberal excesses of the national party yet didn’t want to call themselves Republicans. That trend continued to accelerate in 2019 sheriffs’ contests.
Numbers of such candidates winning jumped to 11 – six new coming from previous winning Democrat parishes, but with two taken away by new Republicans. In essence, the labels served as a conveyor belt for Democrats moving away from the label and becoming Republicans (in the majority of cases, by new sheriffs winning election but occasionally from incumbents relabeling themselves). Seven Republican-identifying sheriffs replaced Democrats; the reverse didn’t happen in a single instance.
This left the new balance at Republicans just one short of a majority, nine more than Democrats. The most interesting case came in Madison Parish, where Republican, and former chief deputy of the parish’s longtime Democrat sheriff, Sammie Byrd knocked off a number of opponents – including GOP former state Atty. Gen. Buddy Caldwell – to win in a parish with a majority of blacks and Democrats.
The pattern replicated this year in the 42 district attorneys’ races. From a 25/11/6 Democrat/Republican/independent and no party split after 2014 elections, the GOP ended up holding a 20-13 advantage over the former Democrat majority, with the nine others. Five parishes that had Democrats now will have independent/no-party DAs, while Republicans picked up two from that category and flipped seven from the Democrats.
DA offices also hold considerable sway in their districts, besides their role as prosecutors, through their connections to the legal community that often spawns political candidates and activists. As such, their partisan conversion and that of sheriffs’ offices will act to lengthen the bench of candidates running as Republicans and to increase campaign activities favoring the GOP.
The results from the past two years of elections have indicated realignment of the base of the elected offices has caught up with that of the upper portion, creating that much more stability and permanency to it. At this rate without a change in their agenda, Louisiana Democrat numbers in office at every level will continue to shrink.