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New party can't mask old liberal/populist Montgomery

State Rep. Billy Montgomery switched his partisan affiliation Monday to Republican. Term-limited in his House seat, Montgomery has eyes on the Senate District 37 seat held by also term-limited Republican Max Malone. Malone has perhaps the most conservative voting record in the Senate, matching that this perhaps is the most conservative Senate district in Louisiana, and as an election ploy Montgomery, whose views are no different today than last week, is trying to discourage GOP competition for the seat. (At the same time he changed his registration, he also changed his tax records to reflect a residence in the district.)

It won’t work, principally because of a voting record favoring tax-and-spend priorities and wasteful government as usual that Montgomery has racked up in his almost two decades in Baton Rouge. Here’s a list of his 10 most liberal/populist votes from just the past couple of years:

2005 Regular Session
HB 763 – voted for higher gasoline prices by mandating a government-determined artificial floor to be placed on its price
HB 887 – voted for a “sick tax” of 1.5 percent that would be passed along in many cases to health care consumers
HB 1 (vote on Tucker amendment) – voted against raising teachers’ salaries without raising taxes

2005 First Extraordinary Session
SB 44 – voted against construction standards that would increase building safety

2006 First Extraordinary Session
SB 22 – voted for the wasteful satellite voting centers which cost Louisiana taxpayers about $375 a voter (nearly 40 times the normal cost per voter) when the perfectly good, far cheaper, and as effective early voting system by mail was an option

2006 Regular Session
HB 194 – voted for raising the minimum wage for state employees which would waste taxpayer dollars by overpaying even more than ever instead of wages being determined by market conditions
HB 685 – voted for mandating the sale of ethanol in gasoline regardless of whether it was higher priced
HB 1028 – voted for creating preferential availability to taxpayer-backed insurance for state legislators (which caused such a hue and cry that it later was vetoed)
HB 1129 – voted for enabling more money to be easily spent on wasteful, dubious “economic development” projects, in this instance Poverty Point Reservoir
HB 1281 – voted for subsidizing with taxpayer dollars a private golf course

Note that this doesn’t include his committee votes which perhaps even more display a liberal/populist record. Stretching the time frame back a number of years turns up plenty of similar such votes. By contrast, District 37 encompasses House District 8, represented by conservative Republican Mike Powell; on these 10 votes over the past two years, Powell voted the opposite of Montgomery on nine of them.

It’s not that Montgomery is an irredeemable liberal and populist; for example, he did sponsor HB 645 this past session which would have reduced cable television rates (although even though he is one of the longest-serving members he lacked the political clout to prevent a veto of it). It’s just that District 37 Republicans and conservatives who make up the district’s majority are unlikely to accept the less-than-half a loaf with which Montgomery presents them ideologically. There is little doubt that Caddo-Bossier Republican activists will do their best to search for and support a genuine conservative, probably of long standing in the party. If Montgomery thought a switch now would discourage this, he’s probably wrong.


Unusually-informed electorate passed amendments

With all 13 amendments to the Louisiana Constitution, some easily, others narrowly, passing last Saturday, what does say about the electorate’s preferences?

First, there appears to be confusion in the interpreting this event. One observer believes that all succeeded, despite the fact that questionable wording on two of them means they may not do what was intended, because “chronic” voters registered affirmative votes out of “trust” of government. Those in political science who study voting behavior and turnout relating to ballot propositions could not concur in that assessment.

This election featured largely isolated propositions – that is, only two statewide special election contests for state offices joined them on the ballot. These are precisely the kinds of elections that disproportionately attract the most informed kind of voters, people with a higher degree of interest in politics. Those with lower interest are more likely to stay home, because there are not on the ballot high profile partisan contests, widely and regularly reported in the media with aggressive campaign organizations spewing forth electioneering materials to the public. So if we equate “chronic” with higher-interest, as a behavioral pattern of these kinds of voters, this does not mean they “trust” government more and vote accordingly, because we also know that there is no relationship between trust in government and higher- and lower-interest people. Therefore, we cannot say that it is greater “trust” that disproportionately produced “yes” votes.

Where they may be a relationship, however, is in the relative level of turnout and the likelihood of approval or disapproval. As turnout increases, more and more marginal voters appear who often are distrusting of the propositions which by definition change things. As less-involved citizens, they are more likely to take the attitude, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” and, being less informed and probably more in doubt of what propositions mean, become more likely to vote against something. If anybody, they would “trust” government more.

While a retired colleague in the profession argues the passage of over two-thirds of state amendments since the 1974 Constitution shows a tendency to vote affirmative demonstrates the electorate’s pliability to supporting government initiatives, in fact a more discriminating view indicates otherwise. In the 21st century, 49 amendments have been proposed of which 14 (the other besides last Saturday’s being the prohibition against same-sex marriage in 2004) have not had any of a presidential, senatorial, or gubernatorial election at the top of the ballot. All have passed. Of the others that did have big races topping the ballot, only 22 of 35 have passed.

This is because of the bias of marginal voters against changing the constitution. Further proof may be obtained by noting in 2006 two measures basically identical to two 2002 failed measures ended up passing – investments in equities for Medicaid funds and by institutes of higher learning. They won this time with about 610,000 and 595,000 total votes, respectively (each winning handily) while in 2002 they both (narrowly) lost with about a million votes cast for each.

In other words, perhaps half of the electorate this time was better-informed voters (note: even at this level they still only comprise 11 percent of the total electorate), and the other half not. Propositions won because the more-informed voters saw merit in them (the vast majority on some items, but even about half of them with the flawed amendments, which, one should note, may or may not be defective in wording; their flaws are because of possible multiple interpretations of them, but that does not mean they won’t be interpreted in the way their authors’ intended – still, the safest thing to do with them is to try again).

So the 2006 amendment results are not a product of an electorate trustful of government, but of a more-discriminating electorate than typically seen deciding on ballot propositions. Understanding current Louisiana electoral behavior requires understanding this.


Chehardy vote signals coming anti-incumbent wave

So were the results of Louisiana’s primary special elections a sign of trouble ahead for incumbent officeholders of any kind, even those running for a different office in 2007, particularly Democrats who comprise the majority of them? You could argue not, but you’d probably be wrong.

Let’s take arguments on both sides:

PRO: Turnout of 22 percent meant a lot of people were turned off by contests headlining old faces; matters will be different next year with regular elections when the abstaining, irritated majority will be mobilized to turn out incumbents.

CON: But in a special election like this with a low turnout usually signals those that did turn out disproportionately were there to toss out incumbents; in a regular election, the less-motivated who feel happy about incumbents will be mobilized to offset the unhappy.

PRO: Libertarian S.B.A. Zaitoon in the Insurance Commissioner’s contest drew 11 percent of the vote, far above the non-major party norm, nearly throwing this contest with two GOP incumbent officials into a general election runoff.

CON: The contest between incumbent Commissioner Jim Donelon and state Sen. James David Cain was so nasty that maybe a majority of votes for Zaitoon were because of that characteristic, eliciting voter disgust, that were specific to that contest and not indicative of a larger anti-incumbent trend.

PRO: All right, then consider the other statewide race for Secretary of State, where the only major candidate who was not a state senator, Mike Francis, got 26 percent of the vote. He nearly made the runoff against two sitting senators, Republican Jay Dardenne and Democrat Francis Heitmeier, who between them only got 58 percent.

CON: But Francis plunked down enough money to seem like an incumbent, much self-financed. The two senators spent the vast majority of the money in the race, sitting on big campaign warchests built up over the years, and next fall few will be as lucky as Francis to have enough personal funds to compete. Besides, Francis still finished third.

In order to make the case that the 2006 elections indicate a rocky 2007 for incumbents, we have to find an instance where a political unknown does well against incumbents solely because she has some name recognition but also has not held elective office. Zaitoon could have provided for such confirmation, except that his showing could be explained away by the “mudslinging” argument proffered above. Francis could have as well, except one could argue his past role as Republican Party chairman and high self-financing make his case exceptional.

But there was such a candidate that could provide this confirmation, in the Secretary of State’s race – Mary Chehardy from Metairie, who spent almost nothing on the race. Only her name attracted votes (being the aunt of longtime Jefferson Parish assessor Lawrence Chehardy and having run twice for the office, picking up 26 percent of the vote in another big ant-incumbent year, 1991). Lost in the election night analyzing was the fact that, running as a Republican, she pulled 9 percent of the statewide vote, again with almost no advertising.

Even more interesting, in the Republican leaning suburb parishes around Orleans, her vote totals were impressive. She hit the jackpot at home with 21 percent in Jefferson, finishing third ahead of Francis, and also finished third ahead of him with percentages substantially above her statewide figure in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, and Washington Parishes, and fourth above her statewide figure in St. Tammany and Tangipahoa. Had she not run and if even a third of her vote had gone to Francis (and little to Heitmeier), it would be an all-GOP runoff in November. Or, another way to look at it is Francis and Chehardy together beat either of incumbents Dardenne or Heitmeier.

Her totals cannot be explained by a mudslide of Biblical proportions triggered by other candidates against each other or by the efforts of a wealthy party insider. Where her name had some cachet, in parishes around Orleans, her support was a pure protest vote against incumbent senators and Francis who may also have been seen as too closely tied to the existing political alignment. There’s no reason to expect the sentiment that produced this will decline dramatically in 2007.

It’s true that in 2007 voters apathetic to these contests will get mobilized, and they will vote for familiar names disproportionately. But simultaneously, an untapped reservoir of those upset with current politicians exists who did not have enough direction by campaigns to make it to the polls in 2006. With the increased efforts of campaigning present as a consequence of regular elections in 2007, all it will take to activate this bloc is some vigorous electioneering on behalf of newcomers. Because of this, current state officeholders, both executive and legislative, need to be wary regardless of the office they run for next year, for all signs are that an anti-incumbent wave may wash away their political careers.


Jones primary performance points to runoff victory

Three lessons were learned from Saturday’s balloting in Shreveport:

1. White Republican former city attorney Jerry Jones is the man to beat in the general election runoff against black Democrat state Rep. Cedric Glover. Even as both candidates expressed wishes that race not be factor in their upcoming contest, the fact is that history shows at least 85 percent of whites will vote for a white Republican and over 90 percent of blacks will vote for a black Democrat. In terms of registered voters, white registration numbers outdistance those of blacks by over 1,500, and whites typically have turned out at a rate of about 2 percent higher than blacks, but Jones’ 39 percent exceeded those standards. Conveniently assigning Republican candidate votes to Jones and Democrat candidate votes to Glover except for those of white Democrat Liz Swaine, Jones has 46 percent of the vote, meaning all he would have to get is a third of Swaine’s vote to win in November. He probably will get better than half, so Glover will have to kick up high get-out-the-vote efforts in November; Glover has no chance to win unless he can dramatically increase black turnout. (The issue is not, as one observer speculated, black voters are getting disproportionately older and female, because, other characteristics equal, these people actually are more likely to vote -- it's that, in this particular contest, the white-black gap opened considerably beyond historical norms.)

Interim statewide race results bode ill for Democrats

Having all of the amendments to the Louisiana Constitution pass (with more on the way) was interesting. That two Republicans almost made the Louisiana Secretary of State’s general election runoff was telling. But fascinating was the fact that, with just a Libertarian to kick around, the Insurance Commissioner race just missed going to a runoff.

Even as the campaigns tried to spin matters away from the fact, simply it was the relentless negative campaigning, with both current Commissioner Jim Donelon and state Sen. James David Cain slinging mud at each others’ ethics, which caused about 11 percent of the vote to go the way of S.B. Zaitoon. Negative campaigning is great to detach a voter from a candidate, but if the camp doing it is to benefit, they must make sure enough of those defecting votes find their way to its candidate.

Instead, neither Donelon nor Cain gave voters much reason to vote for each, and so the beneficiary was Zaitoon. Eleven percent won’t get you to a runoff – but it was enough of a protest vote over the lack of either Donelon or Cain expressing reasons why they could do a good job. And, along with results from the other statewide elective contest, hints at what is to come in 2007.

The close finish among Secretary of State leader Republican Jay Dardenne, ahead of Democrat state Sen. Francis Heitmeier, leaving out of the runoff but not by much Republican businessman Mike Francis, in the long term may be more significant. This result especially bodes ill for the Democrats in next year’s elections. The fact that a white New Orleans-area Democrat barely got into the runoff shows the party has been weakened by demographic trends accelerated by the citizen displacement caused by the Katrina hurricane disaster.

Both Zaitoon’s and Francis’ performance, along with other minor candidates in the Secretary of State’s race which swept up with Francis 42 percent of the vote, shows that incumbents may have a pretty rocky time – and they disproportionately are Democrats, both statewide and in legislative districts.

With Dardenne likely to get most of Francis’ votes, the GOP will rack up two wins here in November, potentially ushering in a strong party performance in 2007.