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LA legislators signaling rising conservatism

While Louisiana contests for federal and statewide offices may offer little chance for change, special legislative races and an appellate judge race could impact the Legislature significantly.

The state Senate has two positions open due to resignations. Democrat Karen Peterson vacated the 5th District in the face of oncoming criminal charges, while Republican Rick Ward left his term-limited 17th District post a year-plus early for an opportunity outside of government.

In terms of policy output, little will change for SD 5. It will pit two sitting representatives, Democrats Royce Duplessis and Mandie Landry, who are best described as, respectively, woke and woker. Since it’s a special election, it’s a free shot for both, but for Landry, who in her first term has promoted the farthest left legislation in the entire Legislature, it could signal her time in office is running out.

The majority-black district has a built-in advantage for the black Duplessis over the white Landry, who narrowly won her job over a black Democrat in a district then about 60 percent in black registration. The 5th has a narrower black majority margin, but Duplessis is an experienced campaigner who unlikely will squander the advantage. That margin has eroded in her district since, but ambitious black politicians in it unlikely will give her a pass, so this move could be insurance on her part to stay in the Legislature after next year.

By contrast, the contest over SD 17 could make a big policy difference. Democrat state Rep. Jeremy LaCombe will take a free shot for this against Republicans Caleb Seth Kleinpeter and Kirk Rousset.

Like Landry one of the few white Democrats left in the Legislature, LaCombe for 2023 faces a district increasing in Republican registrations and he is seen as vulnerable given the toxicity Democrats have acquired in Louisiana that is becoming mirrored nationally. The 17th has a racial and partisan balance roughly similar to that in his current district, so as in the case of Landry this move may serve as insurance.

LaCombe’s Louisiana Legislature Log voting scorecard for the 2019-21 period (he won a special election in early 2019) gives him an average of just over 50, meaning there are a number of liberal/populist votes he cast over which his opponents can gig him. However, Ward himself over the years defected on a number of votes away from conservative/reform preferences, so that might not harm LaCombe that much in this district.

Kleinpeter, a veteran, businessman, and rookie West Baton Rouge Parish Council member, has more conservative credentials from that job. Both he and LaCombe are considerably younger than Rousset, who is near retirement age as a Baton Rouge obstetrician/gynecologist. His record is unknown, although his pattern of campaign donations shows gifts to both Democrats and Republicans for state and local contests.

A LaCombe win would flip the seat to erase Republicans’ one-seat buffer for a supermajority in the chamber, but a relentless GOP effort tying LaCombe to national Democrats, plus highlighting problematic votes by him, such as his vote last year supporting a veto of a bill that he backed this year that allows only biological females to participate in single-sex sports events for females at the scholastic and collegiate levels, probably keeps him in the House where he would have to take his chances at reelection there.

The Legislature also would be impacted by the outcome of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, First District Division D contest, because opposing Republican 17th District Judge Steven Miller for it is Republican state Rep. Tanner Magee, who serves as the Speaker Pro Tem. That post would open a year early were Magee, a lawyer, to prevail.

One the one hand, judgeships in Louisiana even if elective offices almost always turn into lifetime positions until a term lasts past the age of 70, while offering extraordinary power for the flexibility involved and pretty good pay, so it’s not unusual for a legislator to chase one of these. On the other hand, it is uncommon for a chamber leader eligible to serve another term to want to leave and take a chance in such an election where he wouldn’t be a favorite.

This illuminates a reality check on Magee’s stature in the House, especially among Republicans poised a seat away from a supermajority. Magee was thought to have eyes on the Speaker’s job after 2023 elections with its current occupant term-limited. That he would so readily forgo that chance shows a distinct lack of confidence within him that he could make that ascension.

Magee has not endeared himself to the solid conservatives making up most of the House GOP delegation. Too often when consequential conservative legislation needed a vote or two in committee or a handful on the floor to pass or make it veto-proof, Magee would go missing in action if not work against the measure. As such, even if he formed an alliance with House Democrats after next year’s elections, with their numbers likely to become fewer and an even higher proportion of Republicans then elected wary of Magee’s history, it’s less and less likely he could pick up enough GOP members to knock off a consistently conservative Republican speaker opponent.

Thus, he may see his leadership role endangered with no upside, and therefore feel the need to seek a safety valve outside the Legislature. Whether he succeeds, his attempt speaks as much volume as does LaCombe’s as to the ideological direction the House is taking, and LaCombe losing would send the same signal regarding the Senate’s course.

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