Louisiana Decides – 2011 Runoff Edition (Legislative Races)

In the previous article, we examined the BESE races and noted that not only had the reformers swept all three races that were on the ballot last night, but that a fissure seems to have developed between the black electorate and their leadership and their presumed allies, the teachers unions. In this analysis, we will look at the legislative runoff races.

Overall, Republicans had a respectable year, but Democrats demonstrated in multiple instances that they were and are still capable of winning elections when they decide to compete. In the Senate, the partisan balance was established after the October primary, and is 24 Republicans and 15 Democrats, for a gain of two Republicans (both pickups came from term limited Democrats). In the House, the Republicans netted a one seat gain (two of their incumbents lost in partisan contests), and that chamber will have 58 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and 2 Independents. What are we to take from last night’s results?

(1) Despite Republican dreams of legislative supermajorities, Democrats are still capable of generating a healthy turnout, and it was this turnout that arguably helped elect Democrats in House races from Minden to Natchitoches to Lafayette;

(2) Therefore, efforts to target Democrats need to be done with more finesse – while a district’s preference in statewide races indicates pickup opportunities, the basics still matter: candidate recruitment is crucial, as is the campaign messaging. And ultimately, the fact that Republicans left seats on the table this year is not necessarily a bad thing for them, because those seats will open up through retirements, resignations, and/or term limits – in 14 legislative districts (12 in the House and 2 in the Senate), Senator David Vitter received at least 55% of the vote – those seats under the right circumstances can be GOP pickups in the future;

(3) Term limits are perhaps weeding out weaker incumbents before they become electorally vulnerable: only one Senate incumbent (Shreveport Democrat Lydia Jackson) was defeated, while four House incumbents lost;

(4) The black caucus has again benefitted from reapportionment – it now has 9 senators (an increase of 1) and 23 representatives (an increase of 3). And equally as important, the “New Orleans influence” within this caucus will be weaker when the new legislature convenes, as you now have additional black legislators coming from places like Ruston, LaPlace, and Monroe;

(5) Finally, we noticed in BESE races that there is a new dimension to races in black majority districts – the role that white voters can now play in choosing the winner. This newfound electoral muscle made itself apparent in two Senate runoffs. In Acadiana, embattled incumbent Elbert Lee Guillory (D-Opelousas) was able to win with 56% of the vote by assembling a diverse coalition that included 83% of St Landry Parish whites, 65% of Lafayette Parish whites, and 49% of St Landry Parish blacks (he only received 28% of the black vote in Lafayette/St Martin Parishes). In other words, without the white “bloc vote”, Cravins would have won. Up in Shreveport, former (he served from 1983-2003) state senator Greg Tarver ended Lydia Jackson’s career by getting 51% of the black vote and 64% of the white vote – the endorsements Tarver received from Republican elected officials certainly made a difference.

While this marks the end of the 2011 season, a new political era in Louisiana has begun: one where Republicans are competitive, and one where assembling multiracial coalitions is the key to victory regardless of the party affiliation or the ideology of the officeholder.