STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Democrats are improving their voter registration numbers in many states this year, but in one state where Democrats have long been the registered majority, they are losing ground. Republicans are gaining. That state is Louisiana, which is a bit of a surprise, given all the anger at the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.
NPR's Ron Elving traveled to Louisiana to find out why the GOP is on the rise.
RON ELVING: When you think of Louisiana, you probably think of New Orleans.
(Soundbite of song, "What a Wonderful World")
Unidentified Man: (Singing) What a wonderful world…
ELVING: Late-night music pouring from a door in the French Quarter.
(Soundbite of music)
ELVING: Nowadays, you may think of hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods being slowly rebuilt.
(Soundbite of sanding and hammering)
ELVING: But tourists in the Quarter don't vote there. Many victims of the hurricane have left their old precincts, and rebuilding crews are often from out of town, out of state or even another country. They're not Louisiana voters.
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ELVING: 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 East Baton Rouge Parish that had the fastest growing zip code in Louisiana back in the oil boom of the 1970s. Katrina and another spike in oil prices have brought back the boom and a new wave of change.
Professor T. WAYNE PARENT (Political Science, LSU; Author, "Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics"): Politically, Louisiana is beginning to look a lot more like Mississippi and Alabama.
ELVING: T. Wayne Parent grew up in Baton Rouge. He's now a professor of political science at LSU and author of "Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics."
Prof. PARENT: You know, we used to pattern pretty well with Ohio and New Jersey in survey research, believe it or not. But now we pattern a little closer to our Southern states in the East.
ELVING: 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. Not far from that 14-lane crossroads, you'll find the new headquarters of the Louisiana Republican Party.
Mr. AARON BAER (Spokesman, Republican Party, Louisiana): We are the party of change in Louisiana, no doubt about it.
ELVING: Party spokesman Aaron Baer.
Mr. 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 that Republicans are able to sell nationwide, but we can do that message here.
Mr. ROGER VILLERE (Florist; Chairman, Louisiana GOP): You see, the Republican Party is growing. It's blooming in Louisiana.
ELVING: Roger Villere is a florist, as well as chairman of the Louisiana GOP.
Mr. VILLERE: So we went from zero statewide elected officials to now having five out of seven and having a Republican governor. We're very excited about that.
ELVING: The governor he's excited about is 37-year-old Bobby Jindal. After just seven months in office, he's been mentioned as a vice presidential prospect. Jindal's riding high in polls here right now, but what's more striking is President Bush's approval rating - roughly 20 points higher than the national average. Villere says it's because most people don't blame President Bush for what happened after Katrina.
Mr. VILLERE: You have to remember, George Bush is president of the United States. He's not mayor of New Orleans, and he wasn't governor of Louisiana. Those were all Democrats.
ELVING: Of course, Louisiana Democrats see it a little differently. Their party chairman, Baton Rouge attorney Chris Whittington, says President George Bush and his party still bear the burden of responsibility for the post-Katrina fiasco.
Mr. CHRIS WHITTINGTON (Attorney; Chairman, Democratic Party, Louisiana): He's turned his back on us. I mean, lighting up the French Quarter for 20 minutes for him to give a speech and then turning off the electricity, people remember that as they sit in their houses sweltering for a month. They remember that very well.
ELVING: Katrina may still fire up the Democrats, but the damage it did to New Orleans also dealt the party a potentially crippling blow. Whole neighborhoods that had been strongly Democratic were washed away. Pollster Silas Lee teaches sociology at Xavier University of Louisiana. He notes that New Orleans had been losing people for decades, and then came Katrina.
Professor SILAS LEE (Sociology, Xavier University of Louisiana; Pollster): We lost half the population, which is rebounding up to 320 or 30 thousand. And in terms of voting population in New Orleans, it was around 200,000. Now, in actuality, it's about 100 and something thousand plus, post-Katrina. That's contributed to a significant loss in terms of registered voters.
ELVING: And even as potential voters return, getting them to turn out to vote will be a challenge.
Mr. ED RENWICK (Retired Director, Institute for Politics, Loyola University): Now you don't know where they are.
ELVING: Ed Renwick is the retired director of the Institute for Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Mr. RENWICK: It's difficult to reach them. And if you have to search for them and reach them, you've got to be highly organized and have a great deal of money. And that is where the Democrats have a problem.
ELVING: Silas Lee thinks the problem may be even tougher than it looks.
Prof. LEE: A lot of people who remain displaced, either they will change their voter registration or they will not be active. And unfortunately, that also means that they will be probably dropped from the rolls.
ELVING: Often, these voters are African-Americans, and Lee thinks many may come back in November to vote for Barack Obama. John Maginnis thinks that's right.
Mr. JOHN MAGINNIS (Publisher, LAPolitics Weekly): The Obama effect, I think, is going to override the Katrina effect.
ELVING: Maginnis publishes the closely watched online newsletter called LAPolitics Weekly. He expects a record black turnout in Louisiana this year, but he also expects John McCain to carry the state - probably by double digits.
Mr. MAGINNIS: Even if there's not a great enthusiasm for McCain, there'll be a pretty sufficient anti-Obama vote come election time. Obama's 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.
ELVING: Winning here would be a good omen for McCain. Louisiana has voted with the winner nine times in the last nine presidential elections. Still, Democrats remain optimistic at least about the other marquee race here this fall: Senator Mary Landrieu's bid for a third term. Landrieu'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's also moved closer to Louisiana's political center.
Mr. WHITTINGTON: She's going to be the speaker at the National Rifle Association convention. That should tell you something right there, as opposed to where she was 12 years ago.
ELVING: State polls have about one-third of John McCain's voters saying they'll also vote for Landrieu. That tells you 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, and 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.
Ron Elving, NPR News.
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