Monday, July 15, 2024

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 that he would force a runoff against Jeff Landry, the state’s hard-line Republican attorney general, in an open primary for governor. Democrats reasoned that 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.

However, when Mr. Landry won a majority of the primary vote in October, eliminating the need for a runoff, it laid bare the bleak conditions of a state Democratic Party decimated by internal divisions, paltry fundraising totals, and a disenchanted voter base. Louisiana Democrats are now facing a few remaining undecided political offices and legislative seats as early voting for runoff elections begins.

Republicans are on track to unite 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. Democrats are grappling with their dwindling influence in the South and facing calls to consider deeper systemic changes ahead of high-stakes presidential and congressional elections.

One analysis estimated that 17 percent of Black voters chose a Republican candidate in the governor’s primary, underscoring the extent of apathy and discontent among the voters who had previously supported Governor John Bel Edwards, a conservative Democrat. The combination of some Black voters turning away from the Democratic candidate, low turnout, and a decline in registered Democrats has created new challenges for the party.

Many Democrats acknowledge the long odds they faced in the governor’s race given Louisiana’s increasing conservatism and its history of flip-flopping control between parties. Gerrymandering and increased polarization have also led to the loss of political posts for centrists and even caused some to leave the Democratic Party.

Mr. Wilson, who faced different challenges than Mr. Edwards, would have been the first Black candidate elected statewide in 150 years, and some wondered if the air of inevitability surrounding Mr. Landry’s campaign led Democratic allies to focus on making inroads with the next governor instead.

Several Democrats have criticized the state party chair, Katie Bernhardt, and have called for her resignation. Internal drama and the prioritization of personal political brands over the party’s interests have spooked donors and further weakened the party.

Without Governor Edwards in place to veto Republican policies, Democrats have little power to advance their own agenda in the Legislature. The recent election of hard-line Republican Mike Johnson as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives also highlights the lack of opposition faced by Republicans in the state.

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