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Edwards looks to collect RINOs as House strategy

Perhaps Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has thrown in the towel concerning state House of Representatives elections, judging by his pick to head the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Or has he simply shifted to a new strategy?

His selection of Democrat former state Rep. Jack Montoucet to lead DWF significantly departs from the preceding secretary Charlie Melancon. His pick a year ago seemed forced from outside, as Melancon had no real experience in that policy area, and while they ran around in the same political circles they had no real relationship prior to his becoming governor. By contrast, Montoucet and Edwards came into the Legislature together, became friends and allies, and Montoucet in his post-firefighter retirement runs a business related to DWF.

That all will help as Montoucet navigates tricky waters stirred by Melancon’s divisive leadership, wherein the former secretary tried to use the department as a shill for Edwards’ big government ideas, to run counter to other Gulf states’ policies on red snapper management, to halt next-to-no-cost popular programs with recreational fishers, and to kowtow to large commercial interests allied with fringe environmentalist elements. This resulted in internal turmoil, feuds with the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission that co-administers policy and with Republican Rep. Garret Graves, and an investigation into departmental practices that has political overtones.

However, even as Montoucet appears capable of restoring order, his departure from the Legislature three years before his (final, term-limited) term concludes makes it more likely that Republicans will expand on their 58-41 (with three no-party members and three vacancies) advantage in the House. Since Montoucet’s first election, the district’s partisan balance has gone from 64-18 percent Democrat/Republican and 21 percent black registration to last fall’s election of 50-26 with 22 percent black registration. Perhaps more ominously for Democrats, over 71 percent of the district voted for GOP Pres.-elect Donald Trump.

In other words, without a veteran incumbent running if any quality Republicans qualify, Democrats likely lose this 42nd District seat, making Edwards’ job even more difficult of getting his agenda through an already-hostile House. But maybe he’s thinking of a kind of pickup opportunity elsewhere?

In the 8th District, with the departure of Republican Rep. Mike Johnson to Congress, Edwards may benefit from subversion. Retired firefighter Duke Lowrie, who ran for the seat in 2011 and received a decent 42 percent of the vote, already has declared he will qualify. Yet Lowrie may have limited appeal should another competitive Republican emerge, given comments he made in 2015 about his refusal to patronize businesses owned or employing Muslims because of the excesses he sees their religious beliefs endorsing, a view that attracted worldwide publicity.

As speculated in the website The Hayride, Robbie Gatti, brother of state Sen. Ryan Gatti, may jump into the contest, which may explain why Ryan has purchased a lot of eye-level signage at bus stops in the area trumpeting his eponymous law firm three years before 2019 elections. Robbie, who works as a physical therapist and serves as a minister at First Bossier Baptist Church, likely as did Ryan would run as a Republican.

But in his first year in office, Ryan’s voting behavior provoked a number of area GOP activists. A law school pal of Edwards, he unabashedly supported him during and after their campaigns by voting consistently for enlarging government – ironically after he barely won his position over former state Rep. Henry Burns by criticizing Burns over votes for tax increases – and shrinking school choice. While voting more conservatively on social issues, Gatti’s votes on taxing and spending issues make him look more like a liberal Democrat wolf in conservative Republican sheep’s clothing than anything else.

Of course, it may not be fair to visit the sins of the brother onto Robbie. Then again, Robbie rented out campaign space to Edwards in 2015, and his strident advocacy against Johnson, who has worked closely with religious and social conservatives for decades and who Edwards opposed on marriage protection legislation, last fall caused unwelcome division within his church.

Edwards may wish Robbie Gatti gets into the race as Republican and qualifying closes with only him and Lowrie running. Under this scenario, like Ryan did in his campaign, Robbie may try to hype his conservative issue preferences while avoiding connecting he and his policies to Edwards, and like Ryan then would not have a voting record to spoil his narrative. Meanwhile, attacks on Lowrie over his intemperance of Islam – in every other way, Lowrie comes off as a sober, full-spectrum conservative – would come from Gatti and Edwards allies. That could attract enough conservatives, added to a non-conservative base available without a Democrat running, to win.

And perhaps Edwards hasn't written off the 42nd. The Hayride also reports a stealth Republican, Jay Suire, may enter that race, who has donated Edwards and local Democrats including the parish party.

In this way, even as Edwards likely loses a sure minority party ally in one district, he may gain a majority party ally in another, or more. If he thinks along these lines, then perhaps the naming of Montoucet, rather than representing waving a white flag, might signal he hopes there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

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