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Special election calls to reveal redistricting strategies

Right after the disastrous national and statewide results came in for Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, state Rep. Walker Hines became the first of them to jump ship as he angled for future political ambitions outside as well as security for his reelection. Next, state Sen. John Alario said he was almost certain to join the GOP, without revealing it was for future Senate ambitions. Hines’ leap gave the Republicans a plurality in the House, while if Alario follows through he’ll cause the Democrats’ majority to fall to four seats.

That may become three in short order. The Senate’s only independent, who himself was a Democrat a year ago, Troy Hebert, is set to become the commissioner of the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control Board. Hebert, who in his initial run for the Senate in 2007 fought off a very spirited challenge from Republican soon-to-be Rep. Jeff Landry, announced his retirement after this term at the end of the last session. His 22nd District has been trending more conservatively and redistricting to take place within months could make it more so for the fall elections.

Meanwhile, the GOP is extremely unlikely to pick up any more advantage with the departure of state Rep. Cedric Richmond at the beginning of the year from his office so that the Democrat can take a seat like Landry in the U.S. House of Representatives. But politics may play a role in how quickly this seat gets filled and connect it to Hebert’s.

The normal earliest election dates by calendar happenstance in 2011 are both in April. However, any special session for redistricting or anything else would be at least a couple of months earlier, so, in Richmond’s case, the presiding officer of his body, Republican Speaker Jim Tucker, could call for one before those dates. A practical reason not to would be to save the state money and hassle in conducting an election on an unscheduled date in only a handful of precincts but requiring state elections officials to be on duty.

Tucker may see an advantage to hold off, depriving Democrats of a vote during the redistricting session. However, Republicans and black Democrats will have a community of interests in redistricting to set aside as many districts with majorities of Republicans or blacks as possible, so having another black Democrat vote (as almost certainly Richmond’s successor will be) might be something Tucker wants.

Simultaneously, and it depends upon how quickly Hebert wants to start his new job (he may take his position immediately through interim appointment since the Senate which needs to confirm him will not be in session, although it would have to confirm him by the end of the 2011 regular session), Democrat state Sen. Pres. Joel Chaisson has the call on filling Hebert’s slot and he may not be as eager to do so prior to the regular election date, if Hebert resigns fairly quickly, because it could well end up putting a Republican in that place. This would further endanger the electability of white Democrats in the Senate, as five of six term-limited senators are white Democrats all from more conservative areas of the state, and the results of the redistricting process could make the task of Democrats holding on to the Senate even more difficult. Chaisson could see Hebert’s successor as an important piece in creating the conditions to produce a Republican majority in the special session.

Matters might get very interesting if Tucker feels like trying to link the two. With the only real disincentive for him to call an unscheduled election being saving the state money, by doing so he may pressure Chaisson into joining him by arguing why wait on giving District 22 voters representation when there’s already another election going on? After all, state election officials will already have to be on hand and adding a Senate race will probably only cost maybe $20,000 more. He further could turn up the heat by rallying his black Democrat colleagues in the House to get their Senate co-partisan co-ethnics to lean on Chaisson as part of a deal to have the special House election.

Thus, the scheduling of these elections will provide clues to observers about the internal political dynamics at play in this very interesting upcoming year of legislative electoral politics.

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