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LA GOP success strengthens incumbency advantage

Unless you had a seat on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Louisiana’s fall general election was a great time to be an incumbent. These results have implication for the partisan balance and composition of the Legislature in the future.

At the statewide level, while three BESE incumbents lost, two Democrats and a recent switcher from that party, all other statewide office incumbents, Republicans, won, even though only two faced quality competition and those challengers also shared the GOP label. Two other BESE incumbents faced a runoff, with the Democrat of the two vulnerable (to another Democrat). Most significantly, Sec. of State Tom Schedler, considered the weakest of the seven statewide officials because he has never run a statewide campaign before (having taken over the office when its previous occupant Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne took that job, and who successfully defended his spot in the other competitive challenge this election), held onto to his against a better financed opponent.

Incumbent near-invulnerability applied to the legislative level as well.
Four kinds of “incumbents” ran in this election: those running for the same office who faced a challenger, those who ran unopposed, those “jumpers” in the House who tried to win a seat in the Senate, and those who found themselves paired together in a couple of matchups because of redistricting. In the last case, by definition two had to lose while two won.

A special case appeared in Senate District 1, where an incumbent but term-limited state Rep. Nita Hutter took on incumbent state Sen. A.G. Crowe and lost. Two of the jumpers won outright, while two more got taken into runoffs. One, term-limited state Rep. Jane Smith, failed to win the Senate District 37 seat being vacated by retiring state Sen. Buddy Shaw that went to Barrow Peacock, on his fourth try for a legislative office.

But that gave Smith a singular distinction – she was the only incumbent from the Legislature who ran for an office not facing another incumbent from the Legislature to lose outright, and that to a veteran campaigner in a largely unfamiliar district. Obviously, none of the 61 unopposed incumbents lost, and of the 47 with opposition from non-legislative-incumbent challengers (including several who had previously served in the Legislature) 40 won outright, with seven in runoffs. Reviewing the nine in runoffs, only two trailed challengers.

Coupled with the fact that the sweeping Republican tide barely nudged higher as a result of the election, perhaps because it’s not far from a natural peak, this seems to indicate that incumbency was a valuable resource in all but BESE elections. Here, partisan affiliation may seem to have mattered, as only incumbents with a long history as Democrats lost or seem endangered. But concerning the Legislature, any partisan disadvantage a Democrat might have had appears to have been shielded sufficiently by incumbency.

That this appeared to be a low-stimulus election – about 275,000 fewer people voted in the governor’s race – perhaps explains the result. Higher turnout contests typically become so due to a higher proportion of the electorate composed of infrequent voters, usually mobilized out of dissatisfaction and disproportionately prone to blame incumbents. Yet with contentment spreading among the electorate for the blossoming GOP majority in state politics, reflected particularly by the almost-zero interparty competition for statewide executive offices, this made appeals to the disgruntled more difficult.

BESE races developed exceptionally to this because for many of them concerted efforts got made to eject incumbents. However, at lower levels the smaller campaigns of challengers found this difficult to replicate, especially as these incumbents had a resource from which to draw, constituency service, unavailable to BESE members.

In a sense, Republicans now find themselves victims of their own success. Their policies are popular, leading to a quietude that trickles down to Democrat incumbents as well shattered only when intense campaign efforts succeed in linking those incumbents to the unpopular policies of the national Democrats. Given that Louisiana elections are staggered from national ones, this makes the task even more difficult. With this electoral environment, we can expect partisan balance to have reached a point of near-stasis, and that term-limits will be the only factor forcing any significant change into the Legislature’s membership.

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