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LA partisanship still mediated by personalism

Of course a no-party designation costs candidates elections, because voters aren’t fools.

After election results came out, my Baton Rouge Advocate colleagues noted that a seemingly-popular incumbent for a Livingston Parish school board spot, running without a party label, lost to a Republican (although one with vast schools experience). In another school board matchup there, Republican Devin Gregoire defeated a no-party candidate who appeared to do more campaigning, although neither apparently raised or spent enough to have to file a campaign finance report.

This prompted a political consultant based in Baton Rouge to proclaim “The politics of Livingston Parish is changing in that not only the Democratic Party label, any label but the Republican party has become toxic.” While the first part is valid, the second misunderstands the nature of Louisiana politics.

Certainly, in the last decade white candidates calling themselves Democrats increasingly have found it difficult to win elections in Louisiana. One look at the changing partisan composition at the state level verifies that, but this also increasingly has crept down to local offices and almost universally is true in larger jurisdictions.

But this trend has faced resistance in coming to fruition in smaller jurisdictions. While one can argue that Livingston has grown – adding roughly 10,000 people estimated since the 2010 census – that’s still only an 8 percent increase, which should disrupt only marginally existing patterns. As well, keep in mind the two contests attracted fewer than 5,000 voters.

In these circumstances, the personalistic nature of Louisiana politics kicks in. Its political culture placing so much emphasis on a candidate’s personal qualities and less relatively on party and ideology, the smaller in population the jurisdiction, the less impact party has on vote choice.

As the Democrat label has become more tied to leftist national politics, those candidates harboring such sympathies have resorted to calling themselves no-party. To a certain degree, Louisiana’s majority conservative voters – with a large majority among whites – increasingly recognize the chicanery and vote for available Republicans as the only assurance they will get an elected official congruent with their ideology.

But in smaller jurisdictions, that tendency fades as familiarity with the candidates increases. As a case in point, while as a Republican Devin Gregoire won, his father Ronnie Gregoire also won an at-large Albany Town Council seat but as a Democrat. In doing so, he defeated one of the Republican incumbents, as all four GOP and single no-party ones ran for reelection. This completely changes the partisan complexion of the body, because in 2014 three of the now-Republicans ran as Democrats, along with a fourth and the no-party member.

Also, Albany’s independent police chief won reelection – but against a Democrat. And while an independent lost the mayor’s race in nearly Killian to a Republican, he met that defeat at the hands of a former mayor.

North Louisiana’s Webster Parish also provides an example of where personalistic factors override partisanship. In school board races there, most just elected ran unopposed. While a Republican did defeat a no-party candidate in one district, three white independents, a white no-party, and a white other party member qualified without opposition. A no-party candidate defeated a Republican for mayor of Springhill, two no-party aspirants went head to head for mayor of Doyline, and no-party candidates picked up a few more elected spots throughout the parish at the expense of both Republicans and Democrats.

Sure, in low information contests such as these party will matter, and a Republican label means more potential support in the electorate, all things equal. But candidate image factors generated from personalistic politics don’t make all things equal. For now, in constituencies small enough where personalism matters and where the black portion of the population isn’t large (because otherwise only Democrats can win), that will have more impact on an election outcome than partisanship.

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