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Louisiana Democrats analyze big defeat in gubernatorial race

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican backed by former President Donald Trump, won the Louisiana governor's race outright, avoiding the need for a runoff.
Henrietta Wildsmith
/
The Times/USA TODAY Network via Reuters
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican backed by former President Donald Trump, won the Louisiana governor's race outright, avoiding the need for a runoff.

Incoming Louisiana governor, Republican Jeff Landry, surprised voters and pundits alike by receiving more than 50% of the vote in a mid-October primary – eliminating the need for a runoff in November.

Landry's triumph is a huge win for Louisiana Republicans, who will occupy the governor's mansion for the first time in eight years and are poised to sweep most – if not all – statewide races in the general election in mid-November.

Republicans' grip on state government will likely lead to consequential changes in policy, in a state that had a Democrat in its highest office since 2016, at times serving as a counterbalance to the GOP legislature.

Outgoing Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is term-limited, is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. A moderate opposed to abortion rights and a gun rights advocate, Edwards used his veto power on certain conservative policies, including a bill passed by the legislature that bans gender-affirming health care for minors. The legislature overrode Edwards' veto in July.

Under Louisiana's open primary system, the top two-vote getters in a primary typically face off in a November general election. Landry, who has served as the state's attorney general since 2016, bypassed the need for a general election runoff after securing 52% of the vote.

The last non-incumbent gubernatorial candidate to accomplish such a feat was Republican Bobby Jindal in 2007.

At his election watch party, Landry celebrated his success.

"Tonight's election says that our state is united, and it's a wake-up call," Landry told hundreds of supporters.

Democrats don't disagree.

With Landry's main challenger, Democrat Shawn Wilson, only pulling in 26% of the vote, state Democrats are conducting an unofficial post mortem of the race — looking at where things went wrong.

Low voter turnout meant resounding defeat for Democrats

The secretary of state's office estimated voter turnout in the October election at a bleak 36.3%.

Compared to the last gubernatorial primary in 2019, turnout among Democrats and Black Louisianans – a critical voting bloc for the party –was low. Turnout was also significantly down in areas that traditionally lean more Democratic – like New Orleans.

"In Orleans Parish, there was a noticeable absence of Democratic party mobilization, and turnout among key demographic groups was relatively low," said Brian Brox, a professor of political science at Tulane University.

Voter turnout in Orleans parish was 27.3% — down by more than 11% from the 2019 gubernatorial primary. Fewer Orleans residents voted for a Democrat this year than when they supported Edwards in 2019.

In addition to what he saw as a lack of mobilization, Brox said another factor is that Louisiana's gubernatorial election happens in an off year, with no presidential or congressional elections.

"When we have odd year elections, people don't necessarily get all the motivation that comes with the more high profile national election years," he said.

Adding to that difficulty, Brox said there was a sense of inevitability in the October primary. Landry had long been the frontrunner, according to almost every poll, and he far out-fundraised the other candidates. At the end of the campaign finance reporting period just 10 days before the primary election, Landry reported having about $4.5 million on hand compared to Wilson's $700,000.

"I think many voters might've seen the writing on the wall," Brox said. "When voters sense that elections don't necessarily matter, they don't necessarily go out of their way to vote."

The dismal turnout meant Landry was able to win the governorship outright with less than 20% of all registered voters voting for him. In fact, Landry received significantly fewer votes than President Biden did in Louisiana in 2020, even though Louisianans overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in that election.

Democrats head back to the drawing board

Bruce Reilly, the deputy director of a voting rights organization in New Orleans, said the Democratic Party is in disarray.

"I never saw any kind of plan by that party," Reilly said. "And they definitely weren't spending any money or using any kind of infrastructure."

Reilly said the Democratic Party seemed focused on races other than the governorship. The election left him questioning the party's identity in the state.

"The Democratic Party elsewhere in America is known as one of reproductive justice and women's rights and in that realm," he said. "But in Louisiana, that's not the case. And I think that is something that probably really waters down their unity."

Since the defeat, several state Democratic figures have called on the party chair, Katie Bernhardt, to resign. Bernhardt responded in a statement saying the party is "standing firm and moving full speed ahead."

She said the party is focused on increasing turnout for early voting in the general election and getting its three candidates for statewide positions elected in November. But one of those candidates for state treasurer, Democrat Dustin Granger, has also called on Bernhardt to step down, saying she has gotten in the way of progress.

Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana state lawmaker, congressman, and current adviser to the Democratic National Party, said the state Democratic Party needs to go back to the drawing board.

"I just think the state party has to get together and decide what direction it wants to go in," he told NPR. "The one thing I'm not sure that I've seen from this state party now, or maybe even in my career, is – do we adopt a statewide Democratic platform, so people know what we stand for and what we're trying to do?"

In a deep red state, with only one Democrat in statewide office, that could be a difficult task. But Richmond still thinks it can be done.

"I think you get in a room, you hash it out, you talk about our values and you come up with it," he said. "We were able to do it on a national level."

Richmond also emphasized the importance of mobilizing voters by reminding them about the consequences of elections. For now, he said, Democrats will have to live with those consequences.

In addition to the governorship, Republican incumbent Billy Nungesser won the lieutenant governor's race outright with 66% of the vote, and the statewide seats of insurance commissioner and agriculture and forestry commissioner were uncontested and automatically went to two Republicans.

Plus, Republicans will maintain strong control of the state legislature. If no Democratic candidate wins a statewide election in mid-November, Republicans will have total control of state government, shifting this already-red state even further to the right.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Molly Ryan
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