Low-key and soft-spoken U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, who just announced he will not seek re-election, never stuck out in many ways, which contributed to his success in politics. Yet he gained a curious recognition in hyper-partisan Washington for having the most registered black voters in his district (33 percent) of any Republican in the House. In fact, he represents more African-Americans than he does Republicans (26 percent).
As an added distinction, in the 2012 election, he received more votes from blacks (43 percent) than did any of the 234 House Republicans, according to an analysis by McClatchey Newspapers.
Alexander says he doesn’t understand why party leaders, anxious to improve the single-digit black support of most of their candidates, haven’t asked him how he does it. If they did, he said, his advice would boil down to showing respect to minorities by not saying things to insult and infuriate them.
That’s hardly a trade secret, as many decent and respectful Republican candidates who have reached out to black voters still have received few of their votes in return.
It may have helped ol’ Rodney among Democrats that he had been one of them for 30 years while he was running for the police jury, the Legislature and Congress. He switched parties on the last day of qualifying in 2004, after filing to run as a Democrat two days earlier.
But the main reason Alexander attracted the support of so many blacks in 2012 is that there was no Democrat on the ballot for them to vote for.
The same was true in the 4th Congressional District next door, where the absence of an opposing Democrat enabled U.S. Rep. John Fleming of Minden, among the most conservative of Republicans, to get 30 percent of the black vote, the second most in the House GOP Caucus. Both won easily over Libertarian and independent candidates.
So its not the outreach of Republican congressmen thetas winning Republicans black support in Louisiana. Rather, its that Democrats of late have largely given up competing in statewide and congressional elections.
Outside of the majority-black 2nd Congressional District based in New Orleans and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who faces a tough reelection battle next year, the white Democrats who once ruled Louisiana are now verging on electoral extinction in higher office.
Their prospects are getting bleaker at the legislative level. In 1981, there were 37 white Democrats and two black Democrats in the Senate. Today, there are five white Democrats and eight African-American ones. Two of the white Democrats, Sens. David Heitmeier of Algiers and Francis Thompson of Delhi, represent majority-black districts. That leaves three white Democrats representing majority-white districts: Sens. Eric Lafleur of Ville Platte, Gary Smith of Norco and Ben Nevers of Bogalusa.
The latest ex-Democrat in the Senate is Sen. Rick Ward III of Maringouin, who, a month after switching parties, filed papers as a candidate for the 6th Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is running against Landrieu.
Before him, Sen. Elbert Guillory of Opelousas made national news by defecting from the Democrats to become Louisiana’s first African-American Republican state senator since Reconstruction. Guillory’s move was more of a homecoming, as he’d switched from Republican to Democrat before first running for the Legislature. His YouTube video explaining his latest switch went viral, prompting calls for him to run for the U.S. Senate, even president.
Guillory’s stated ambitions are more modest, as he’s thinking about running for lieutenant governor in 2015. The competition could be stiff for the state senator because, though no white Democrats are being mentioned as potential candidates for the No. 2 office, a growing number of Republicans and several black Democrats are.
Democrats do have one declared candidate for governor in 2015, Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite. Other Democrats are holding out hope that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, assuming he is re-elected early next year, will set his sights on the Governor’s Mansion.
Yet, for Sen. Landrieu and whichever Democrat runs for governor, the top of the ballot is a shakier perch without other Democrats vying for lower offices, for Congress in 2014 or the Legislature in 2015, and helping to generate turnout. Just as parties build from the ground up, they deteriorate that way too.