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Special election outcome warns of danger to Democrats

As usual, lessons present themselves after the results of a special election in a competitive Louisiana legislative district, this time from the Senate District 20 contest necessitated by the early departure of Reggie Dupre. The district, held by Democrats since the elimination of opposition to them after the Civil War by 1900, was won by about 10 percent by Democrat Norby Chabert over Republican Brent Callais.

First, more proof came from this that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal doesn’t have much in the way of coattails in these kinds of elections. Jindal endorsed Callais, a former Lafourche Parish councilman, but it wasn’t enough. This followed another failed candidacy of a Jindal endorsee earlier this year. Jindal is popular in the state and thereby an endorsement can’t hurt, but so far they don’t seem to help, either. This points to a difficulty in translating a statewide consensus about a politician onto a local contest.

Second, while (in percentage terms) Callais produced the second-best showing ever by a Republican in the district, at only 20 percent GOP registration, even with white Democrats an even-money bet to defect in elections, it’s a lot to overcome as a Republican. The quick-and-dirty rule of thumb that argues half of white Democrats vote for Republicans and all Republicans do would give a GOP candidate about 42 percent in that district under typical circumstances, and Callais actually beat that by a bit. That in the primary Democrat candidates got over two-thirds of the district’s vote underscores the task for a Republican.

However, it is a competitive district and one that the GOP could pick off. In my research on voting behavior in Louisiana legislative elections, I have discovered the “8:3 rule” which states that if the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in a district exceeds this ratio, a Democrat wins most of the time, but if it does not, a Republican does. The numbers put this district right at that ratio, so why did it tip the way of Democrats this time?

Well, third, while Callais tried to link Chabert to national political forces, most principally pointing to Chabert’s past support of Pres. Barack Obama, as another challenger there wasn’t much that could be used against Chabert other than this. Had he been elected to office before, other pieces of evidence demonstrating Chabert’s support of unpopular policies or people might have been available – something which may be present for a potential rematch in 2011.

Fourth, personalistic factors loom large in Louisiana local politics and perhaps nowhere more than in the bayou country. The Chabert name still carries a lot of cachet around the district, with one of them serving in the Senate from 1980-96. That Norby Chabert could ace out sitting state Rep. Damon Baldone for the Democrat vote in the primary speaks to that, as well as that Baldone may have been seen as tied more closely to national Democrats because of votes he had taken in the House.

Fifth, this being a special election may have played to the Chabert name and difficulty in connecting Chabert to national Democrats. In these less-stimulating kinds of contests, voters that show up typically are more interested and informed about politics, as well as there being fewer cues present on which to base voting behavior. Thus, more voters more likely would have recognized some distance between the rookie candidate Chabert and national Democrats, blunting the effectiveness of that strategy of Callais’, and the Chabert name would be an extra and exaggerated relevant cue received favorably by many.

In short, while national political forces favored Callais, demographics, timing, and name recognition favored Chabert. But take away the timing and name, and maybe even just the latter, and Callais may well have won. Knowledge of this gives clues to future performances and electoral tactics.

All in all, if Democrats nationally continue to self-destruct, if Louisiana Republicans can campaign starkly on their policy differences, even if Louisiana legislative Democrats intentionally cast some high-profile conservative votes in the next two years, it may not be enough to stave off the public’s recognition that if you lie down with dogs, you get fleas. State-level Democrat candidates, especially incumbents, may be such fleabags by then that enough of the public will ignore whatever attempts to present themselves as conservatives.

If so, they will lose in districts like this one. Thus, the proper way to interpret this result is that unless the policy outcomes for Democrats change in the next couple of years and Republican candidates hold them accountable for their actions and associations, contests in Louisiana that shouldn’t be close for Democrats will be, and the majority of them that typically are close are not going to go their way.

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