Part of the seeds of change in 2007 were sown in 1995. That year was the high-water mark for term-limits, and then state representative David Vitter persuaded the Legislature to pass the proposed constitutional amendment, which limited legislators to 12 years in each chamber for legislative service beginning in 1996. At the time the legislation was introduced, voters were tiring of the fourth Edwards administration, and an FBI gambling probe didn’t help matters much, either. So a nervous legislature allowed term limits to be voted on. The proposed amendment passed easily in October 1995 with 76%, with levels of support ranging from 50.5% in Franklin Parish to 85% in St. Tammany Parish. Since the term limits clock didn’t start ticking until the 1996-2000 term, this law was mostly ignored for several years.
The reality of term limits began to sink in, however, during the Blanco administration. Though the term limit clock affected 56 representatives and 20 senators, some of those legislators left for other elected offices and/or government positions as the 2007 elections got closer.
The Republicans early on grasped the significance of term-limits as a means of gaining majority control of the legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. However, pickup opportunities created by term limits varied considerably between each legislative chamber. In the House, there were 27 term-limited seats which were considered competitive, and Democrats held 24 of them. In the Senate, however, there were thought to be seven competitive term-limited seats, of which only three of those were held by Republicans.
While the Democrats initially didn’t take much note of the term-limits mathematics, things began to change in the spring and summer of 2007, when the Republicans, emboldened by four state representatives’ switching parties right after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, began to use their veto power in the House to attempt to force budget concessions from the Democratic majority. Additionally, Senator David Vitter and his wife Wendy threw their energies into forming the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority (also known as LCRM), with the express purpose of electing Republicans in legislative districts carried by George Bush and/or David Vitter in the 2004 elections. Eventually, the Democrats recognized the challenge and counter-organized. Not only did they use their legislative majorities to pass Governor Blanco’s budget on largely a party-line vote, but they, in the words of LCRM executive John Diez, “successfully recruited business-friendly candidates” to run in those competitive legislative districts. Former House Democratic Caucus Chairman (and now Senator-elect) Eric LaFleur further noted that “his party has gone to great lengths to distinguish Louisiana Democrats as independent from the national Democratic party’s image.” And it didn’t hurt, either, that Democrats had a built in advantage from the fact that in smaller communities, the majority of local politicians and/or civic leaders were still Democrats. The LCRM also suffered somewhat of a setback during the summer of 2007 when stories arose regarding Senator Vitter’s involvement with prostitutes in
While Bobby Jindal clinched a first primary victory with 54% of the vote against three well-funded opponents, his victory hurt the Republicans’ chances in the runoff, as did the post-primary withdrawal of seven term Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom, who was considered a polarizing figure to Republicans. The absence of these two races from the runoff ballot deprived Republicans of high-voltage races to help get their vote to the polls. And the one remaining statewide race to be settled in the runoff was the Attorney General’s race, where the Republican candidate, Royal Alexander, was not considered to be a strong candidate. So in a very low turnout runoff (the statewide turnout was about 26% of registered voters), Democrats could count on local races (sheriff, police jury, etc.) to get their vote to the polls.
The actual results of the legislative runoffs were a split decision. In the Senate, Republicans won two of the four partisan runoff races and received 50.01% of the vote in those races. The Republicans also won eight of the 17 partisan House runoffs and led in the vote 49-48% (an Independent was elected to a Thibodaux House seat). Despite the vote totals, Democrats maintained control of both houses of the Legislature. They were expected to maintain (and possibly increase) their Senate majority because not only did the LCRM not focus much on the Senate races, but term-limits resulted in Republicans’ being forced to vacate four politically marginal Senate districts. In the House, Republicans faced better odds, but the LCRM was unable to recruit Republicans to run in five of the open House seats. This lack of coverage meant they needed to win 11 of 17 partisan House runoffs to gain control of that chamber – and they only won eight.
In the end, the Democrats “broke even” in the Senate with a 24-15 majority by losing two open seats while picking up two term-limited seats held by Republican converts. In the House, Democrats barely kept control with a 53-50-2 lead. Not only was their control maintained by only 506 votes, but all eight of their House runoff victories (and one of their two Senate victories) were with less than 54% of the vote. One factor which arguably helped Democrats maintain their House majority was that in three of the eight races they narrowly won, Democrats were running against Republicans who had served before in the House as Democrats, so it’s entirely possible that voters’ desire for change benefited the Democratic candidates in those districts.
Though pundits and those in the blogosphere were quick to celebrate the continued Democratic majorities despite the efforts of Republicans and groups like the LCRM, they also realized that the Republicans got what they wanted: the House Speakership, as Bobby Jindal chose Rep. Jim Tucker (R- New Orleans), the Republican leader during the Blanco years. And as a blogger ruefully noted: “….53 seats is nice and dandy for press clippings, but what the LCRM really wants is the Speakership. If they get control of that, they get to redraw the districts…..they are going to threaten every single one of our guys with new, ugly districts (sp) that will force them to switch parties. In other words, the LCRM may get the last laugh….”
Lost in this post-election analysis, however, is the simple fact that Republicans didn’t have the numbers to seriously contest control of the Legislature until recently. But for those seats they did contest, they faced favorable odds. As the chart below shows, Republicans have consistently won over half the seats they’ve contested in either legislative chamber since 1995. And in the 2007 elections, those odds increased to at least 68%. Looking ahead to 2011, what will be key is to be more aggressive in contesting Senate seats, as Republican membership has essentially plateaued in that chamber since 1995, when, incidentally, there was a concerted effort by former party chairman Mike Francis to “defeat the dirty dozen.” As a result of this aggressive campaign, Republicans were rewarded with a doubling of their membership in that chamber. Equally as significant was the fact that three of the defeated Democrats were members of a cohesive populist voting bloc that throttled reform measures over the years.
|# Seats Contested
| # Seats Won
| Win Ratio