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Listening to the legislative leader of Louisiana Democrats reveals all you need to know about the self-inflicted wound the party has perpetrated on itself to place it close to irrelevancy in the state. Besides missing the point and accusing its rival of doing exactly what it did, this silliness also avoids understanding the largest lesson from the recent legislative elections.
Hearing state Rep. John Bel Edwards’ remarks about the election, one would get no sense that the Democrats now trail the Republicans in seats in the House by 58-45 and in the Senate by 24-15 because they are wrong on the issues. No, it’s because influential Republican politicians like Sen. David Vitter campaigned on tactics, designed to tie Democrat candidates to unpopular national policies, of “race baiting and Obama hating” that were rejected by voters past a certain point. Naturally enough, there’s nothing true about this in explaining why some Democrat incumbents were able to hang on to win reelection, as with one exception those who did try for it were defeated.
But the one who lost was not targeted by the GOP, rather defeated by another Democrat in a manner where race as an issue may have made the difference.
State Rep. Rickey Hardy lost to a relative of a seat holder previous to him, with his vote to merge Southern University New Orleans with the University of New Orleans perhaps the crucial issue why. Hardy was the only black representative to do so, where all too many opponents of the merger defined the issue as a loyalty test to some strangely-conceived concept of supporting black people.
There were a number of good reasons having nothing to do with race that demonstrated the merit of the merger, so to suggest voting for the merger constituted betrayal of black interests shows intellectual laziness and genuine race baiting. Also instructive is that in the only contest where a Democrat beat a Republican incumbent, state Rep. Rick Nowlin, this occurred in a district reapportioned to make it a majority black district. While that campaign appeared free of even the subtle racial overtones Hardy’s endured, race mattered in that a majority black electorate voted for a black Democrat.
Edwards seems constitutionally unable to understand that opposing a president who identifies himself as black because he is wrong on the issues does not make for “race baiting.” And the evidence from the Hardy and Nowlin contests shows that, if anything, Democrats were guilty of using “code” to “race bait” in these legislative battles.
Nor does Edwards appear to have the reasoning ability to understand why incumbents who were Democrats withstood challenges from Republicans supported financially by the likes of Vitter’s organization. All of these were settled in the general election, because Vitter’s group was almost the only financial supporter of these challengers while the incumbents raised far more money than the challengers, in many cases much from special interests. Big money, much more than anything Vitter’s group donated, helped save these seats for Democrats.
All of this obtuseness, if not downright disingenuousness Edwards displayed in his remarks, leads him to miss the real story that may dictate why Democrats have become a permanent minority in the Legislature doomed to near-irrelevancy: incumbent reelection and return rates have come back to their high levels of the pre-2007 era. In the Senate, discounting the election pitting two incumbents reapportioned into the same district, 29 of 30 incumbents won reelection, while in the House, also discounting another contest where reapportionment put two incumbents in the same district, 73 of 77 won reelection. Given that term limitations took out 11 members of the House, two of which ran for and won Senate seats, one left a House seat early and successfully won a Senate seat while another other lost, and six Senators got booted by term limits, this means that 30 of 32 unaffected by term limits and who did not get redistricted out of a seat returned (one defeat, one early retirement, both from Shreveport) returned to the Senate, and 74 of 93 similar House members got returned.
The 2007 cycle proved deviant because over half of the chambers, with many of those members having served over three terms, faced term limitation as that was the first year it applied. But with much smaller cohorts this and the cycle next to force out by term limitation, with a reelection rate and return rate of previous norms and a party switch total of two Republicans gains in the Senate and GOP taking four Democrat seats and a no-party seat in the House, the Democrats taking three Republican seats and a no-party seat, and a no-party candidate taking a Republican seat to net at one additional GOP seat at a no-party member’s expense, rates also close to historical norms, opportunities for party pickups through the next cycle seem few.
In other words, absent some large change in the electorate’s mood, Democrats seem firmly locked in as the minority party with little chance of growth. Indeed, the trend continues to move in the opposite direction, although less dramatically than prior to the latest elections. Edwards and his ilk either can fantasize about imaginary determinants of their party’s position and watch it continue to deteriorate, or they can come to the realization they have to move away from the political left to reverse the trend, to buck the historical incumbent return and party switch rates that threaten to make them a permanent minority party, and thereby to have any hope to make progress. Once again, it’s the ideology, stupid.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 09:15