Louisiana Democrats struggle with dwindling numbers as Republicans prepare to broaden control
Louisiana Democrats are facing an uphill battle as they prepare for the upcoming governor's race. Six months before the qualifying period, the party has yet to announce a candidate for any statewide office, other than a relatively unknown teacher in LaSalle Parish who won just 2% of the vote in a state Senate race four years ago. The party's state chair, Katie Bernhardt, has also drawn criticism after signaling her interest in running for the governor's office.
The state's registered Democrats have been dwindling in numbers, while the ranks of Republicans and independents continue to swell. Last year, Democrats lost two high-profile races that were thought to be winnable. "The Louisiana Democratic Party is in disarray," says Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. All of these developments suggest that Republicans are poised to further broaden their control over state politics during the fall elections.
If past experiences are any guide, a new Republican governor and GOP-dominated Legislature will seek to lower taxes, which would result in less money available to spend on education and health care for the working poor. At the same time, there will likely be a push for tough-on-crime measures and the loosening of business regulations.
As Democrats attempt to get their house in order, Shawn Wilson, the highly regarded secretary of transportation under Gov. John Bel Edwards, appears to be a likely candidate for governor. Meanwhile, Bernhardt has announced that she will not run for governor this year.
Two decades ago, Democrats controlled all of Louisiana's political levers of power. But in a trend mirroring other southern states, white voters have been steadily leaving the Democratic Party in Louisiana, even if they don't always change their party registration. Today, Republicans hold every statewide office except governor, and they are just one seat away from having a two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House.
Democrats are finding it increasingly difficult to gain ground, especially at a time when partisan politics are seeping into the local level in a solidly Republican state. The Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, which is headed by U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, is already raising money to elect more Republicans to the Legislature, as it has done in past election cycles. Meanwhile, Democrats don't have a similar group.
Karen Carter Peterson, Bernhardt's predecessor as party chair, produced unwanted coverage when she pleaded guilty last year to embezzling $140,000, some of it from the party and some from her campaign account. She was sentenced in January to 22 months in federal prison.
Since Bernhardt took office in September 2020, the number of registered Democrats has dropped by two percentage points, with Republicans and independents each picking up one percentage point. Democrats now constitute 39.2% of the electorate, while 33.6% of voters are registered Republican. However, those numbers mask a much grimmer reality for Democrats. In statewide elections, especially for national office, Republicans typically reel in around 60% of the vote.
John Couvillon, a pollster and demographer in Baton Rouge, says that Republicans will likely have more registered voters than Democrats in three to five years. With the erosion of white Democrats, Black people now constitute 61% of Democratic voters in Louisiana, and Black people hold 36 of the 44 Democratic seats in the Legislature.
Democrats appeared to be positioned to flip a Republican-held state Senate seat when Rick Ward resigned last year. Ward's district, which includes nine parishes and stretches diagonally from St. Helena Parish to St. Martin Parish, "has been more friendly to Democrats than any other Republican-held state Senate district," says Couvillon. But state Rep. Jeremy LaCombe, the Democrat, was defeated by Caleb Kleinpeter, a Republican who served onthe Livingston Parish Council, in the special election to fill Ward's seat. Kleinpeter's victory was a significant one for the Louisiana Republican Party, as it helped to maintain the GOP's hold on the state Senate. Some political analysts have suggested that LaCombe's defeat was partly due to low voter turnout, as well as the fact that special elections often favor candidates who are well-known in their local communities.
Despite the setback, Democrats in Louisiana continue to work to build their base and cultivate support in the state's more competitive districts. With the 2023 elections looming, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to make significant gains in Louisiana's state legislature, which has been firmly under Republican control for several years.