Lafayette, La. — “No more boondoggles. No more indictments,” a Republican candidate for Agriculture commissioner says earnestly in his new radio ad. It is a sign of the times here in Louisiana: a subtle attack on his incumbent Democratic opponent, indicted on seven counts.
The reputation of Louisiana’s long-ruling Democratic party’s is in tatters, along with that of its leader and top elected official, Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D.). If there had been any doubts that her career was over after Hurricane Katrina, they were allayed last December, when a businessman jokingly bid one dollar in a fundraising auction for lunch with her.
His bid won.
When Blanco opted not to seek a second term and a rematch against Rep. Bobby Jindal (R.), Democrats discovered that a good man can be hard to find. Beginning around the New Year, they could not convince any top-tier candidates to run for governor in this political environment. Their last-ditch candidate is state Sen. Walter Boasso, who switched from Republican to Democrat this year to make the race. He entered after former Sen. John Breaux (D.) opted not to run amid concerns that he would not meet the state’s residency requirement (he receives a homestead exemption on his property in the District of Columbia). Because it had taken Breaux so long to make up his mind, the other viable candidate — Rep. Charles Melancon (D.) — saw it better to stay put than to such a race late and with a huge cash disadvantage.
This year’s election is not primarily a question of ideology, but of competence and corruption. Two key Democratic figures have been indicted. The airwaves are awash with political commercials that focus on ethics and government reform.
Democrats here face a situation strikingly similar to what Republicans faced as they approached the 2006 congressional elections — the similarities go right down to complaints about the handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“There has not been a single oversight hearing on the state government’s failures to deal with Katrina,” said state Rep. Steve Scalise (R., Metairie), who is running for state Senate. “I think a lot of that was blocked because the current leadership didn’t want to have that exposure.” His words echo those of Democrats in Washington, whose calls for ethics reform and oversight of the Bush administration in 2006 were invaluable in helping them seize control of Congress.
Between Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, and Mark Foley, Republicans in Washington have all but lost the “good government” mantle. But in Louisiana, the situation is the opposite, largely because of Katrina. A strong statewide feeling of buyer’s remorse over Blanco’s 2003 election propelled Jindal to the front of the gubernatorial field one year ago, and he has barely looked back. With just eight days left in the Louisiana governor’s race, no one doubts that he will finish first in the Lilliputian candidate field over which he towers. The only questions are whether he will win 50-percent in next Saturday’s the multi-party primary and avoid a November runoff election, and whether he wins big enough to help Republicans gain eleven seats and control of the state House for the first time since Reconstruction.
Democrats suffer from many disadvantages that go beyond their own bad apples. Katrina displaced tens of thousands of New Orleans residents, a reliable and long relied-upon segment of the Democrats’ voter base. Legislative term limits kick in this year, leaving 47 open House seats of the total 110. Many of those term-limited are conservative Democrats from the northern part of the state — meaning that Republicans’ chances could hardly be better.
Naturally, Democrats dispute the idea that their situation is so dire. Trey Ourso, a seasoned Baton Rouge Democratic consultant who is working to elect Boasso and a large slate of legislative candidates, said he believes that Democrats will hold the House and then beat Jindal easily in a runoff. “It could be 48 to 28 [percent] on Election Day, and we’ll beat him in a runoff,” said Ourso. “I’m certain of it.”
But even though Jindal’s numbers have slipped slightly in recent weeks, it is hard to see how Boasso can climb his way to 28 or even 20-percent by next Saturday. Even if there is a runoff, there is no guarantee that Boasso will qualify for it by finishing second. A recent poll has him tied with independent candidate John Georges at nine percent. Another one pegs him just ahead of Georges at 10-percent. People can love or hate Jindal, but with a score at or near 50-percent in every poll, he is the campaign. No movement has caught fire among the voters to elect Boasso, Georges, or geographical candidate Foster Campbell (D.).
Louisiana Democrats speak confidently, but their posture says otherwise. The state party got off on a bad foot last November, indulging some voters’ imputed racism by referring to Jindal in its press releases by his given name of “Piyush” in order to highlight his Indian ethnicity (several “progressive” blogs continue to do the same even now). During his unsuccessful run against Blanco in 2003, Democrats famously darkened Jindal’s skin in a television commercial in order to exploit the same racism. In Protestant Northern Louisiana, the state Democratic Party ran ads in August that deliberately misquoted an article Jindal wrote in 1996 about his Catholic faith, falsely making it appear as though he were denigrating Protestants. These are all signs of fear and desperation, not confidence.
Ourso and his candidate have slammed Jindal far more effectively with ads criticizing him for his record — for cutting the budget when he headed the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals under Gov. Mike Foster (R.). With these attacks, Jindal’s numbers have slowly drifted closer to 50-percent from the 62-percent he had in May. Yet notably, even as Jindal’s numbers inch downward, Boasso’s and the others’ have failed to rise significantly.
If Louisiana turns red next week, the Democratic “Solid South” will be completing a political realignment that began over 40 years ago. Southern states began supporting Republican presidential candidates with Barry Goldwater in 1964. In 1994, the trend hit U.S. House elections as eight southern Democrats were defeated and five others switched parties after the election. In 2002 and 2003, Republicans replaced Democratic governors in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Between 2002 and 2004, Democrats lost half of their Southern Senate seats, leaving them with just four out of 26.
Louisiana Democrats have long resisted the trend of southern realignment, but the victory of Sen. David Vitter (R.) in 2004 was proof that they cannot hang on forever. After electing its first Republican senator in over 130 years, Democratic Louisiana may elect its first movement conservative as governor.
–David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.