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Louisiana Democrats ruled the state 3 decades ago. What caused the political shift?

The Louisiana State Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.
Stephen Smith
The Louisiana state Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.

The results of Louisiana’s most recent elections might suggest it’s always been a deep-red state.

Republicans swept all statewide offices in 2023, and will occupy all of the state’s highest seats of power when Louisiana’s lone Democrat, Gov. John Bel Edwards, leaves office in January.

But the stronghold Republicans have in Louisiana is relatively new. In 1991, just one Republican held a statewide office in Louisiana. And until 2004, Republicans hadn’t won a U.S. Senate seat since Reconstruction, when the parties weren’t really what they are today.

Edwards, a moderate who opposes abortion, has been the only Democrat in statewide office for the last eight years — a testament to the political shift Louisiana has seen over the past few decades.

“We’ve gone through a transformation,” said Albert Samuels, head of the political science department at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Between 2001 and 2019, 30 Louisiana lawmakers and politicians switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party, according to “The Party Is Over,” a Louisiana politics book to which Samuels contributed.

More have switched since then, including several lawmakers who became Republicans this past session, giving the GOP a supermajority in the state Legislature — something they will keep in 2024.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards talks to media at his campaign office in Shreveport, La., during his re-election campaign in 2019.
Gerald Herbert
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards talks to media at his campaign office in Shreveport, La., during his re-election campaign in 2019.

Edwards said he has also faced pressure to switch parties. On his monthly call-in radio show “Ask the Governor,” Edwards said former president Donald Trump urged him to become a Republican before his reelection in 2019.

Democratic party registration has dropped by about 20% in the last two decades. And that doesn’t account for a large number of registered Democrats who likely vote Republican because the state has an open primary system.

There are several reasons for Louisiana’s sea change in party affiliation, Samuels said, including a move away from the populist politics that were once popular under Democratic governors like Huey Long and Edwin Edwards. Samuels attributed that shift to the collapse of the oil and gas economy in the 1980s, saying it “really undermined” populism.

He added that the corruption scandals under Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards fueled a sort of “anti-government rhetoric.” Edwards was found guilty on several counts of fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering.

Samuels also said that term limits in Louisiana, which passed in 1995, came at the expense of the Democratic Party because it meant many longtime Democratic lawmakers were pushed out of state government. That left seats up for grabs, which Republicans began to win, he said.

“Once the momentum built, you start seeing Democrats changing parties. You start seeing the political winds changing,” Samuels said, adding that Republicans’ growth in the state influenced even prominent Democrats, like former state lawmaker John Alario, to switch parties.

Another key moment in Louisiana’s political shift, according to Samuels, was Hurricane Katrina and subsequent storms that led to the displacement of thousands of Louisiana residents, especially “reliable Democratic voters” in New Orleans.

He also raised the point that a Democratic governor — Kathleen Blanco — was in office at the time of Hurricane Katrina and consequently received a lot of blame.

New Orleans’ population has never recovered to pre-Katrina levels, and the percentage of voter turnout in Orleans Parish this year for the primary was the lowest in the state, decreasing the city’s political influence.

Still, not every Louisianan has abandoned the Democratic Party. Former state lawmaker and congressman Charlie Melancon, who started in politics working for Edwin Edwards in the early 70s, remained a Democrat throughout his political career and still identifies as one today.

Melancon, who describes himself as a Blue Dog Democrat, served as a U.S. representative for Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District from 2005 to 2011. During that time, he said others pressured him to switch parties, including David Vitter, a prominent Republican and U.S. senator at the time.

“David Vitter called me one day and said, ‘Look, if you don’t switch over to Republican, we’re going to run somebody against you for your re-elect.’”

Despite that pressure, Melancon wouldn’t budge because he said he did not connect personally or politically with the Republican Party. During the course of his career, several of his colleagues made that switch.

Melancon agreed with Samuels that several factors contributed to the partisan shift in Louisiana, including Hurricane Katrina chipping away at the Democratic Party’s base.

But he said another factor also played a role in the shift — race.

“I guess the best thing that I can tell you that turned that light switch on for me was when white friends started telling me I needed to become a Republican because I was in the party of the ‘N-word,’” Melancon, who is white, said.

Louisiana’s racial history, Melancon said, makes it particularly difficult for someone like Shawn Wilson — a Black Democrat, who recently lost his bid for governor — to win statewide office.

Samuels agreed that race plays a factor in Louisiana elections and politics, pointing to the political limbo in a court case over the state’s congressional map, which a federal judge found likely violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting Black voting power.

Samuels also said that the decreasing political competition in Louisiana signals a need for Democrats to go back to the drawing board, adding that they are not the “default” party that they once were.

Molly Ryan is a political reporter and covers state politics from the Louisiana Capitol.

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