By Jeremy Alford, Sarah Gamard And Mitch Rabalais
With the 2019 election cycle approaching, special interests and party operatives who traditionally play in legislative contests are more confident than ever that big 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 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.
Democrats, meanwhile, think they could have a few opportunities to do the same — flipping a red seat or two blue. But, as is the case with their Republican counterparts, they are giving no hints as to where these pickups could occur.
“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 them 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 in this election cycle), both parties aren’t forgetting their capacities in the lower chamber.
Kyle Ruckert, the lead consultant for the Louisiana Committee for a 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 [and] that are [also] 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 notion 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 has the distinction of being the only U.S. senator to be relocated by Louisiana voters from Washington, D.C., to a state governorship. It happened in 1904.
Others have tried unsuccessfully to bring the change about — 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 (as a non-incumbent) ran an incumbent’s campaign by focusing heavily on his political and government experience.
Know of anyone these days who could run as the outsider’s insider?
Retrospective: How Mississippi Beat Louisiana To Legalized Gaming
By the mid-1980s, gas prices were at record lows as foreign oil flooded the marketplace. Louisiana, having collected millions in severance taxes during the preceding decade, was facing massive budget deficits.
In response, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards put forward an ambitious package of bills during the 1986 regular session, including several that relied heavily on money that would be generated by gambling.
That response may sound somewhat familiar, especially given the fiscal challenges faced by Louisiana’s current governor of a similar name and the large slate of gambling-related bills that were debated by lawmakers this spring.
The situation, however, was more desperate 32 years ago — and the politics radically different. Edwards had called for the establishment of land-based casinos in the Orleans Parish region, a new statewide lottery and gambling cruises along the Mississippi River. He worked the plan hard, telling voters from the stump that the Legislature’s unwillingness to increase taxes left the state with a limited number of viable options.
But the plan was overshadowed by Edwards’ legal problems. He was bouncing between two federal trials at the time, having been indicted on charges related to alleged bribes and kickbacks in return for hospital construction contracts. During court recesses, Edwards tried to lobby legislators from a payphone in the federal courthouse, according to Tyler Bridge’s Bad Bet On The Bayou: The Rise of Gambling In Louisiana And The Fall Of Governor Edwin Edwards.
Edwards was polling at an all-time low, which made any ideas he pushed toxic. So even though he would eventually be acquitted, Edwards’ gambling bills never made it out of committee.
Meanwhile, over in Mississippi, a decline in tourism was bankrupting businesses along the Gulf Coast. In Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2008, authors Jere Nash and Andy Taggart recount how a group of entrepreneurs in Biloxi created a gambling “cruise to nowhere.” Passengers could travel aboard a boat and, once three miles out from the coast, gamble in federal waters.
The boats were immediately popular and the owners made a hefty profit. The only hiccup was that a court ruled that federal waters started three miles off of a state’s barrier islands, not the coast. This decision made the “cruise to nowhere” model financially untenable.
The proprietors reached out to their legislators in Jackson. They made a bet that the Gulf Coast delegation could sell the legalization of gambling boats in the Mississippi Sound as an economic development measure during the 1989 regular session there.
To pass the bill, the delegation needed only a simple majority of legislators present. Thus, several prominent gambling opponents were convinced to “take a walk” when the bill came up for consideration.
It narrowly passed, and was signed into law by Gov. Ray Mabus.
Back in Baton Rouge the following year, then-Gov. Buddy Roemer was trying to fill budget gaps after his proposed changes to the tax code were defeated. Unwilling to tinker with taxes again, the Legislature passed a constitutional amendment to establish a statewide lottery, and voters approved the idea.
While Roemer grappled with the lottery, Mississippi lawmakers were considering an expansion of their newly legalized gambling industry. Small towns along the Mississippi River had seen the success that the Gulf Coast had experienced with cruising casino boats and wanted to get in on the action. Many of the same prominent gambling opponents were again convinced to “take a walk” when the expansion measure came up for consideration.
It looked like the bill was going to pass until one legislator pointed out a major problem with the cruising casino boats — a problem caused by the meandering of the Mississippi River. Because the river’s channel changes course and state lines are set, whole portions of the river were located entirely in either Mississippi or Louisiana. The boundaries weren’t clearly marked, and the pilots struggled to keep their boats in Mississippi waters.
With gambling still illegal in Louisiana, this could have had serious consequences. For instance, if a riverboat left Natchez and accidentally crossed into Concordia Parish, law enforcement could have impounded the vessel and arrested everybody on it.
This discovery necessitated a quick amendment to the bill, which allowed dockside gambling along the Mississippi River. It passed. The following January, Gov. Mabus called a special session to legalize dockside gambling on the Gulf Coast as well.
By the 1991 regular session in Baton Rouge, Louisiana lawmakers had taken note of the developments in Mississippi. Many feared that tourists would begin flocking to the new casinos in the Magnolia State. “We are losing our competitive edge,” said then-Rep. Francis Heitmeier, based on an account in How the South Joined the Gambling Nation: The Politics of State Policy Innovation by Michael Nelson and John Lyman Mason.
Heitmeier proposed the establishment of 15 riverboat casinos that would cruise the Mississippi, Red and Calcasieu rivers and Lake Pontchartrain. Then-Rep. Peppi Bruneau was likewise pushing a measure to legalize video poker in bars and truck stops throughout the state. The two gambling bills didn’t come up for final consideration until the last day of the regular session. An impassioned plea from Bruneau helped them pass in the waning hours.
Signing the riverboat casino bill into law a few days later, Roemer said, “We are the tourist center of the Mississippi Valley, and we should have it.”
In the 1992 regular session, a land-based casino was approved for New Orleans, albeit after some creative maneuvers from then-Speaker John Alario and House Clerk Butch Speer.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, officials were cutting the ribbon on sparkling new casinos all across their state. Louisiana, on the other hand, was still figuring out how to collect bids and dole out licenses.
They Said It
“Do you believe in the tooth fairy?”
— U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, questioning DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, in a congressional hearing
For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics.com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.