By Jeremy Alford, Sarah Gamard & Mitch Rabalais
With the 2019 election cycle approaching, special interests and party operatives that traditionally play in legislative contests are more confident than ever that bis changes are coming to the Louisiana Legislature.
Term limits alone will see to that. As of now, 34 representatives out of the 105-member state House are ineligible for re-election, as are 16 legislators in the 39-member Senate.
All in, that’s 34 percent of the Legislature that is going to be replaced in January 2020, which could in turn reshape the legislative landscape next term.
While the Senate represents the largest potential sea change, with 41 percent of its membership turning over, Republicans appear poised to continue growing their majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
The House, however, isn’t being ignored and the state GOP seems to be taking aim already at white Democratic representatives, as it has the past two terms.
Demographics and voting patterns in some of the House districts represented by white Democrats have been trending Republican and more conservative in recent years — to the point of peaking just in time for the 2019 cycle.
“There are some seats that we actually think could be more vulnerable than they were in previous years,” said Louisiana Republican Party Executive Director Andrew Bautsch, without disclosing actual seats.
Democrats, meanwhile, think they could have a few opportunities to do the same — flipping a red seat or two blue — but like their Republican counterparts, no hints are being given as to where these pickups could occur in the state.
“We haven’t pinpointed those districts and made decisions on those just yet,” said Rep. Robert Johnson of Marksville, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
Regardless, the primary focus of the caucus’ strategy will be to maintain the 39 House seats the minority party currently possesses.
“Number one is to protect our existing seats,” said Johnson, adding that the key will be protecting the body’s 25 incumbent Democrats who are not term-limited.
That means the party must likewise recruit candidates to fill 14 open seats next year, and boosters contend they are already making some headway.
Dems will also have to contest two open seats early , due to the special elections triggered by the resignations of former Reps. Mike Danahay of Sulphur and Gene Reynolds of Minden.
“We are actively recruiting in those particular areas to be able to at least return our same numbers,” Johnson added.
The same goes for Republicans, who have been on the lookout for new talent.
“Finding new candidates is getting a little bit harder each year, especially with the landscape in Baton Rouge,” said Bautsch. “It’s really hard, like with what’s happening with the governor and our legislators, to go to them and say, ‘We really want you to run for this seat.’ And then being like, ‘Well, why would I leave being a businessman or woman to try to do that?’”
While there has been a lot of chatter about the potential turnover in the Senate (upwards of 20 new members this next election cycle), but both parties aren’t forgetting their capacities in the lower chamber.
Kyle Ruckert, the lead consultant for the Louisiana Committee for Conservative Majority, acknowledged that the House had become the conservative base for the Legislature, even though the Senate is getting most of the attention.
And that includes attention from term-limited House members, who are hoping to hop over to the upper chamber next term.
“There’s a lot of talk about the Senate because there could be a more conservative change there,” said Ruckert. “A number of members are coming over that are House members that are business leaders that could make the state Senate more conservative. I don’t see it as an either-or scenario. You can’t keep your eye off of keeping a conservative House.”
That same goal is shared by the party as well.
“Pushing the Senate has been getting a lot of love and traction. But from our standpoint, they’re both equally as important,” said Bautsch. “It’s going to be a huge turnover. We want to maximize and make sure that we hold our seats that we know we have and also pick up a couple on the way.”
Political History: The senator who became governor
Newton Crain Blanchard owns the distinction of being the only U.S. senator to be relocated by Louisiana voters from Washington, D.C., to a state governorship in 1904.
Others have tried unsuccessfully, most recently former U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the 2015 governor’s race. As the 2019 gubernatorial election draws closer, some suspect junior U.S. Sen. John Kennedy could follow suit, but he hasn’t yet indicated which way he’s leaning.
Voters, however, haven’t agreed to such an electoral transfer in 114 years. And while there are still applicable learning lessons to glean from Vitter’s bid, the path plotted by Blanchard offers the only victorious model for study
A Shreveport attorney, Blanchard was politically active in Caddo Parish politics before serving as a delegate to the 1879 Constitutional Convention. The following year, Blanchard won election to the U.S. House, representing the northwestern corner of the state.
He served as chairman of the House Rivers and Harbors Committee, an influential perch he used to snag federal projects. Like Kennedy, Blanchard was a favorite of political reporters both in Washington and Louisiana. He even emerged as an effective spokesman for the conservative “Bourbon Democrats.”
When late U.S. Sen. Edward Douglas White was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894, then-Gov. Murphy J. Foster appointed Blanchard to fill the vacancy. In the Senate, he carved out a natural resources niche and became an influencer on lower Mississippi River flood control.
Rather than seek election to a full term, Blanchard laid the groundwork for a gubernatorial campaign. A legal scholar, he briefly served on the state Supreme Court in the interim and resigned before qualifying for the governor’s race.
In the 1904 Democratic primary, Blanchard faced former Baton Rouge Mayor Leon Jastremski, a Confederate veteran who fought with fire and tried to make Blanchard’s lack of military service a negative. Blanchard deflected the attacks and ran an incumbent’s campaign as a non-incumbent by focusing heavily on his political and government experience.
Know of anyone these days who could run as the outsider’s insider?
They Said It
“General, do you believe in the tooth fairy?”
—U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, questioning the FBI’s inspector general, in a congressional hearing
“We have a National Enquirer-type situation going on down in Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District.”
—Attorney General Jeff Landry, on former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani attending a fundraiser in Lafayette that was organized by someone he was reportedly dating, in POLITICO