How the Louisiana Democrats Lost the House Legislature

Before a single ballot was cast, Louisiana Democrats knew they couldn’t win control of the State Legislature this year. It was mathematically impossible, because a lack of candidates meant they were not even contesting the majority of districts.

Their best hope for political success rested with Shawn Wilson, a former state transportation secretary, and the expectation he would force a runoff against Jeff Landry, the state’s hard-line Republican attorney general, in an open primary for governor.

At least, Democrats reasoned, Mr. Wilson would make it a little harder for the overwhelmingly favored Republican to flip control of the governor’s mansion in a region increasingly dominated by conservatives.

But when Mr. Landry won a majority of the primary vote in October, eliminating the need for a runoff, the results instead laid bare the bleak conditions of a state Democratic Party decimated by internal divisions, paltry fund-raising totals and a disenchanted voter base.

“If my defeat brings about change and organization, so be it because it’s worthy of that — it deserves that kind of change,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview. “Our citizens deserve better than what we’re getting.”

Now just a handful of political offices and legislative seats are undecided as early voting for runoff elections begins Friday. Republicans are barreling toward uniting a conservative government for the first time in eight years, led by Mr. Landry, who has defended the state’s strict abortion ban, questioned the results of the 2020 election and battled environmental regulation.

It is not the first time in recent years that Democrats have confronted the party’s dwindling influence in the South: Senator Mary L. Landrieu’s defeat in 2014 marked the end of a 138-year streak of at least one Democrat representing the state in the U.S. Senate. But even before the Nov. 18 election, some liberals are pushing the state party to consider deeper systemic changes ahead of high-stakes presidential and congressional elections.

Just over 36 percent of the electorate voted, and one analysis estimated that 17 percent of Black voters chose a Republican candidate in the governor primary, underscoring the extent of apathy and discontent among the voters who had rallied twice behind Gov. John Bel Edwards, a conservative Democrat limited to two terms.

John Couvillon, a longtime Republican pollster who analyzed precincts with at least 70 percent of registered Black voters, said the combination of some Black voters turning away from the Democratic candidate, the low turnout and a decline in registered Democrats made for “a whole new ballgame.”

Many Democrats acknowledged they had faced long odds in the governor’s race, given that Louisiana has become increasingly conservative and is historically prone to flip-flopping control of its highest post between parties. A combination of gerrymandering and increased polarization has also led to several centrists to either lose their political posts or leave the Democratic Party altogether.

Mr. Wilson, who scrambled to introduce himself to voters, also faced different challenges than Mr. Edwards: He would have been the first Black candidate elected statewide in 150 years, in a state that nearly elected a former Ku Klux Klan leader as governor in the 1990s.

Mr. Edwards, who opposes allowing access to abortion, also ran long before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and abortion rights became an issue that galvanized the Democratic base.

But some also wondered if the air of inevitability surrounding Mr. Landry’s campaign led some Democratic allies to preemptively move to make inroads with the next governor. Others questioned why top Democrats had not done more to shore up support for obvious successors to Mr. Edwards, knowing that he was unable to seek a third term.

“Democrats just really aren’t competing,” said Trey Mustian, who works with the Jefferson Parish Democratic Executive Committee. “The state party has a great responsibility going out and recruiting candidates, and they just don’t do a good job of that.”

He added, “We’ve just got to really rehabilitate and rebuild.”

Several Democrats have focused much of their ire on the state party chair, Katie Bernhardt, calling on her to resign.

Ms. Bernhardt inherited an already downtrodden party, taking over after Governor Edwards initially endorsed another candidate and replacing a previous chair who pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud after siphoning funds away from the party.

But anger began to fester after she released an ad that appeared to tease a run for governor, a move that some Democrats felt stymied Mr. Wilson’s introduction to the race and prioritized her personal political brand over that of the party.

“It’s pretty daunting for us, and it’s already hard enough,” said Dustin Granger, a candidate for state treasurer who had the best Democratic performance by garnering just a third of the vote. He called on Ms. Bernhardt to resign in a statement, saying the party could not “let self interests at the top continue to drag us down.”

The internal drama, some said, further spooked donors from committing to the party.

Mr. Wilson described his interactions with the state party as “We need you to raise money, Shawn.” His campaign raised “right at $300,000,” he said.

“And,” he added, “to this day, I’m still waiting on a mailer — a ballot from the state Democratic Party — in spite of the fact that we played by the rules, we followed the law, we made investments.”

Another division emerged when Mr. Edwards and other top Democrats backed a challenger to Mandie Landry, a liberal state representative who had tussled with party leaders, in a safe New Orleans seat. (Ms. Landry has taken great pains to emphasize that she and the governor-elect are not related.)

“There’s a big battle still — do they go more moderate to get more rural white moderates back, or do they go full city progressive to energize people?” said Ms. Landry, who won her race. “And it seems like what they’ve been doing for a while is trying to get the white moderates or white conservatives back, and I think that’s stupid.”

Ms. Bernhardt and her allies have largely avoided directly responding to the calls for her resignation, choosing to focus on the remaining races. Those include Mr. Granger’s bid for treasurer and two Democratic women running for attorney general and secretary of state.

“Division leads to defeat,” Ms. Bernhardt, who did not respond to requests for an interview, wrote in an opinion piece published after the primaries. “Unfortunately, some are looking to stoke divisions to advance their political agenda. This divisive rhetoric is untimely and counterproductive.”

But without Mr. Edwards in place to wield his veto pen, there appears little Democrats can do to advance their own agenda in the Legislature or push back against Republican policies.

“When resources are not garnered, are not gathered and invested, you cannot be surprised if you don’t have that sort of backbone to be able to lean on,” said Stephen Handwerk, a former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party.

And in recent days, as most Americans learned about Representative Mike Johnson, the hard-line Louisiana Republican newly elected as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, several local Democrats grimly noted one biographical detail: Mr. Johnson ran unopposed in 2022.

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