Democrats Losing Ground In Louisiana

Democrats are improving their voter registration numbers in many states this year. But in Louisiana, where they've long been the registered majority, Democrats are losing ground while Republicans are gaining.

That's a bit of a surprise, given all of the anger at the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

But many victims of the hurricane have left their old precincts, and rebuilding crews are often from out of town — they're not Louisiana voters.

A Changing Landscape

Seventy miles west of New Orleans, there's one crossroads where a six-lane shopping corridor meets two state highways, mixing a total of 14 lanes of traffic. It's in a part of the East Baton Rouge parish that had the fastest-growing ZIP code in Louisiana during the oil boom of the 1970s.

Thirty years later, Katrina and another spike in oil prices have brought back the boom and a new wave of change.

"Politically, we're starting to look a lot more like Mississippi and Alabama," says T. Wayne Parent, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University and author of Inside the Carnival, Unmasking Louisiana Politics. Parent grew up in Baton Rouge.

"We used to pattern pretty well with Ohio or New Jersey in survey research, believe it or not," Parent says. "But now we pattern a little closer to our Southern states to the east."

Most of the Deep South warmed up to the GOP decades ago, but Louisiana hung back. It went 100 years without a Republican governor, 120 years without a Republican in the U.S. Senate.

Now it has both, and high-growth areas are driving the change.

Bush's Strong Approval Rating

Not far from that 14-lane crossroads is the new headquarters of the Louisiana Republican Party, part of the new Louisiana.

"We are the party of change in Louisiana, no doubt about it," says party spokesman Aaron Baer. "In Louisiana, Republicans are the candidates who want to change the system that isn't working for the people. That may not be a case Republicans are able to sell nationwide, but we can do that message here."

Roger Villere, a florist and the chairman of the Louisiana GOP, says the Republican Party is growing and blooming in Louisiana.

"So we went from zero statewide elected officials to now having five out of seven, and having a Republican governor," Villere says. "And we're really excited about that."

Gov. Bobby Jindal, 37, has been mentioned as a vice presidential prospect after just seven months in office. He's riding high in local polls now.

But what's more striking is President Bush's approval rating in Louisiana. It's still up around 50 percent in the state, roughly 20 points higher than the national average.

Villere says it's because most people don't hold Bush responsible for the post-Katrina disaster.

"You have to remember George Bush is president of the U.S.," Villere says. "He wasn't mayor of New Orleans or governor of Louisiana. ... Those were all Democrats, they weren't Republicans."

The Democrats' View

Louisiana Democrats see it a little differently.

Their party chairman, Baton Rouge attorney Chris Whittington, says George Bush and his party still bear the burden of responsibility for the post-Katrina fiasco.

"He turned his back on us," Whittington says. "I mean, lighting up the French Quarter for 20 minutes so he can give a speech and then turning off the electricity? While people sit in their houses sweltering for a month? Yeah, people remember that. They remember it very well."

Katrina may still fire up the Democrats, but the damage it inflicted on New Orleans also dealt the party a potentially crippling blow. Whole neighborhoods that had been strongly Democratic were washed away.

Silas Lee, a pollster who teaches sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana, notes that New Orleans had been losing people for decades before 2005. And then Katrina came.

"We lost half the population, which has rebounded now to 300,000 plus," Lee says. "And in terms of voting population, we fell from 200 to 100 plus post-Katrina. That contributes to a significant loss in terms of registered voters."

Getting Voters To The Polls

And even as potential voters return, they may be tough to turn out.

It's hard to reach them, says Ed Renwick, the retired director of the Institute for Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans.

"You have to be highly organized and have a lot of money, and that's where the Democrats have a problem," Renwick says.

Lee thinks the problem may be even tougher than it looks.

"A lot of people who remain displaced — either they will change their voter registration or become inactive — unfortunately, may be dropped from the [voter] rolls," Lee says.

Looking For The Obama Effect

Many on the margin are African Americans, and Lee thinks many may come back to vote in November because Barack Obama is on top of the ticket.

John Maginnis, who publishes the closely watched online newsletter LA Politics Weekly, thinks that's right.

"The Obama effect is going to override the Katrina effect," Maginnis says.

Maginnis expects a record black turnout in Louisiana this year, but he also expects John McCain to carry the state, probably by double digits.

"Even if there's not a sufficient enthusiasm for McCain, there'll be a pretty sufficient anti-Obama vote come election time," Maginnis says. "Obama supporters are counting on this massive African-American turnout, and I don't doubt there'll be one — I just think there'll be a massive white one, too."

Winning Louisiana would be a good omen for McCain. In the last nine presidential elections, Louisiana has voted with the winner every time.

Sen. Landrieu's Third-Term Bid

Still, Democrats remain optimistic about the other marquee race here this fall: Sen. Mary Landrieu's bid for a third term.

She's been called the most vulnerable Democrat in the Senate, but she's also the last Louisianan with real seniority in Washington. And she's kept the post-Katrina money flowing.

Chris Whittington says Landrieu has also moved closer to Louisiana's political center, because she will speak at the National Rifle Association convention.

"That should tell you something right there, as opposed to where she was 12 years ago," Whittington says.

State polls have about one-third of McCain's voters saying they'll also vote for Landrieu. That shows how tricky the crosswinds can be on the bayou.

Also up in the air are all but two of the state's seven congressional seats.

After November, either party could have as many as five of those seats — or as few as two. That's what happens when a national trend toward change comes to a state with a political climate all its own.

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