The state of the GOP

The state of the GOP

A heated Senate race illustrates the divides in Louisiana's Republican Party.

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Louisiana was among the last Deep South states to turn deep red, but when it happened, it happened quickly.

David Vitter, then a congressman from Metairie, became Louisiana's first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction in 2004. With help from Democratic defections, his party took over the state House of Representatives in 2010 and the state Senate in 2011, both for the first time since (you guessed it) Reconstruction. Today, the party holds every statewide elected office but one.

Back when the Republican caucus could meet in a phone booth, sticking together was pretty much mandatory. But when any party gets bigger, factions develop, and the Louisiana GOP is no exception.

This year, a Republican Baton Rouge doctor takes on a Democratic political legacy in a U.S. Senate campaign that could end up being the No. 1 national political news story for weeks. The Democrats are unified behind Sen. Mary Landrieu, the incumbent. The Republican factions mostly seem to be holding together behind their frontrunner, Congressman Bill Cassidy, but there's still time for that to change.

A closer look at how that race is shaping up provides guideposts that help explain the state of the Republican Party in Louisiana today.

Being a Louisiana Republican ain't what it used to be, and that's a good thing for the GOP. But if Republicans, often the anti-government party, want to keep governing, they're going to have to learn how to handle success.

Democratic dominance

In federal elections, Democrats basically owned the South from the end of Reconstruction in the late 1870s through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But even when the national party started losing ground in Louisiana, conservative Democrats continued to run the show here.

It was the era of the Yellow Dog Democrat—the kind who would vote for a yellow dog before he could bring himself to pull a lever for a Republican. Republicans were, after all, the party of Lincoln—not exactly a popular figure in the South for generations after the Civil War.

A teenage Woody Jenkins in 1964 went door-to-door for Republican icon Barry Goldwater.

"[The GOP] was viewed as a procivil rights party," says Jenkins, who now leads the Republican Party of East Baton Rouge Parish. "It was favorable to blacks, and that was not a great thing [in Louisiana]."

Jenkins became a Democrat before successfully running for the Legislature in 1971 and remained one until 1994.

"I realized if I got elected, I could vote how I wanted to," Jenkins says, explaining how he rationalized his decision to become a Democrat. He says he joined a "conservative caucus" that included four Republicans and a few other Democrats, like Baton Rouge's Richard Baker, who in 1986 went Republican before winning election to Congress. Jenkins says he never would have predicted the "polar shift" the state's politics has taken.

But when a party grows and becomes more diverse, philosophically if not racially (see graphic, page 31), conflict is inevitable.

There are two common Republican archetypes. The urban, chamber of commerceoriented Republican is probably not liberal on social issues, yet he or she is more concerned with a favorable business environment than "God, guns and gays." This type of Republican prefers making government more efficient over tearing it down.

The more ideological Republican, on the other hand, often disparages his opponent as a country clubber, out of touch with the grassroots, insufficiently conservative and possibly a dreaded RINO [Republican In Name Only].

Nationally, the media narrative tends to focus on establishment Republicans versus Tea Party insurgents. In Louisiana, where personality often trumps party, things can get a bit more complicated.

In last year's 5th District congressional election, Republican newcomer Vance McAllister finished second in the state's unique open primary system (often a sore spot for party officials) before thumping state Sen. Neil Riser, who was favored by the Tea Party and the establishment, in the runoff—with help from Democrats.

"I don't think [in Louisiana] the Tea Party are the outsiders challenging the party leadership," says Kirby Goidel, an LSU political science and communication professor and until recently director of the Manship School's Research Facility. "They sort of are the party leadership."

Goidel says a significant faction of the Louisiana GOP emerged less out of a desire to shrink government and more in opposition to what they saw as backroom Democratic cronyism. He says Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne of Baton Rouge might fall into this category, as would many members of business-backed groups like Blueprint Louisiana. Cassidy, generally popular with the chamber of commerce set, has a "pretty conservative" record, although his more mild style seems a poor fit with the ideologues, Goidel says.

Of the lesser-known Republican Senate candidates hoping to challenge Cassidy for a spot in the likely December Senate runoff, at least one, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, has cast himself in the insurgent role, in hopes of capitalizing on grassroots dissatisfaction with the frontrunner.

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Changing Lanes

In a way, Cassidy is the quintessential Louisiana Republican in that he used to be a Democrat. His 1988 support for liberal presidential candidate Michael Dukakis (from Massachusetts, of all places) and his past donations to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and even Landrieu prior to running for the state Legislature as a Republican have been widely reported.

But Cassidy claims he seldom hears about the RINO concerns on the campaign trail, except from writers who need to fill column inches. Real people apparently care about Obamacare, taxes, economic growth, and the general direction of the country.

"They want an alternative to Sen. Landrieu, whom they understand supports Barack Obama," Cassidy says. "They're looking for someone like me, who is more in line with their values."

Even Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the modern Republican Party, once was a Democrat, Cassidy notes. He explains his own conversion partly with the old expression, often dubiously attributed to Winston Churchill, about how if you're not a liberal when you're young, you have no heart, but if you're not a conservative when you're older, you have no brain.

Cassidy betrays no concern about his competition to be the conservative standard-bearer in the Senate race.

"How many [candidates] are there, four or five?" he says. "There's at least four that I know of. It's a little like whack-a-mole."

Of his two announced Republican challengers, Maness, a political newbie, is the most outspoken.

"We need senators who are willing to be obnoxious," Maness told the RedState Gathering of conservatives in New Orleans last year. "I'm only starting to be obnoxious." Cassidy was not invited to the event.

While sitting on the patio of the College Drive Starbucks before an evening campaign event at The Station, Maness calmly argues that he's the truly conservative, non-politician in the race. He denies that he has violated the "11th commandment," often espoused by Reagan: Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican.

"Reagan didn't say that you shouldn't be aggressive about policy disagreements," Maness says. "I don't see a principled conservative voting record [from Cassidy]. I see what, in my opinion, is a political voting record."

But on his campaign website and in email missives, Maness goes hard after Cassidy, whom he conflates with Landrieu as an establishment Washington insider. In a recent press release, Maness proclaimed himself "stunned by Cassidy's elitism and liberalism." Maness' outspokenness at times has alienated party insiders whose support he presumably needs to get elected.

Opting for a different approach, Covington Rep. Paul Hollis doesn't even name his competitors on his Senate campaign website, and in an interview he avoided explicitly criticizing fellow Republicans. He stresses his lifelong Louisiana residency—unique among the Senate candidates, including Landrieu—his experience running a small business, and his conservative voting record since being elected to the Legislature last year.

Hollis, without naming names, says he offers a stronger counterpoint to Landrieu than a "blended candidate." Some observers believe Hollis is just trying to position himself to run for other office.

"People have asked me to stand down," he says.

But veteran Baton Rouge political consultant Roy Fletcher, who is working for Hollis, suggests that if Hollis can just "hang around" and stay in the conversation while the major candidates sling mud at each other, he just might have a shot.

The Nuisance Factor

Several polls show Landrieu and Cassidy essentially tied. While that's not great for the incumbent, it's possible that she has already scraped bottom after a spate of lousy Obamacare publicity, and as of this writing her anticipated spring advertising blitz had not yet been unleashed. Cook Political Report calls the race a toss-up, while Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans a 55% chance of winning Landrieu's seat and calls the GOP a slight favorite to net the six seats needed to take over the U.S. Senate.

Cassidy's supporters say he's the one guy in the race with the name recognition, money, and experience to beat Landrieu. No candidate is perfect, they argue, so let's go ahead and coalesce around Cassidy the way we did with Vitter, who won on the first ballot in 2004 and avoided a runoff. Fighting off challengers from his right could cost Cassidy money and time, and perhaps even damage his brand going into the runoff when he should be focused on Landrieu instead.

But a counterargument has been made that Landrieu won't beat any Republican in a runoff, thanks largely to her support for the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," so there's no need to compromise if you're a Republican who isn't excited about Cassidy. In fact, maybe Hollis and Maness would bring a few more conservatives to the polls in the open primary, preventing Landrieu from wrapping it up early.

"Hollis and Maness have no chance whatsoever to win," says Joshua Stockley, an associate professor of political science at UL-Monroe. But they could siphon a few percentage points from Cassidy, costing him an outright win in the primary, Stockley says.

Pollster and consultant Bernie Pinsonat says it takes at least $3 million, and probably more like $4 million to $6 million, to seriously challenge a U.S. senator. Landrieu reported raising more than $1.8 million during the quarter that ended March 31 and having about $7.5 million in her campaign account, compared to $1.2 million and $5 million for Cassidy. Millions more will be spent on the race by outside groups.

Maness says his campaign has raised more than $750,000 so far, more than half in the first quarter of 2014. Hollis' latest numbers were not available at press time; the Federal Election Commission website showed no donations as of Dec. 31 to his then-new campaign except a $250,000 loan from the candidate himself.

"If you can't raise $3 million, all you are is a nuisance," Pinsonat says.

But John Foster, a Baton Rouge resident and Maness supporter, suggests his guy could be the next Sen. Ted Cruz, the Tea Party favorite from Texas who also started out with little money or name recognition. Foster says Cassidy is a RINO, a lousy speaker, and a lackey for the Republican leadership, and he's not worried about inadvertently helping Landrieu.

"Any vote for either one of the Republicans or for the Libertarian [Brannon McMorris] is a vote against Mary," he says. "In the primary, there's no reason not to vote your conscience. Personally, I won't vote for Cassidy. If it comes down to Cassidy and Landrieu, I'm staying home."

Republican leaders, obviously, hope very few people feel this way, as it would cut into their expected turnout advantage. And the race could very well come down to turnout.

Dr. Karla Doucet, a member of EBR's Republican Parish Executive Committee, says her party is fracturing in part because its emphasis on social issues alienates its libertarian wing. She feels Maness is a strong conservative, but she hasn't met Hollis yet, and so hasn't decided whom she supports.

Doucet says most of her Republican friends back Cassidy, but she finds him inconsistent and unreliable. But what if Landrieu wins?

"It's absolutely not a disaster," she says. In fact, it could be a good thing if it helps convince Republicans to support true conservatives over moderates, she says.

Democrats, meanwhile, enjoy any sign of dissension in the Republican camp.

"Republicans rightfully don't trust Bill Cassidy," says Stephen Handwerk, Louisiana Democratic Party executive director, noting that the GOP has discounted Landrieu's electoral chances before, only to see her win with progressively wider margins. "Having that sort of squishy ground underneath her supposed top opponent certainly is a big help."

Party Strife

Cassidy and his supporters have been calling Republican State Central Committee members, trying to secure an official endorsement, says Chairman Roger Villere.

"When we have multiple candidates, we normally stay out, but not always," Villere says, naming Gov. Bobby Jindal as one of those exceptions. Villere says the process requires majority assent of the Central and Executive committees.

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An endorsement might encourage the party to rally around the frontrunner. It might also give insurgents another chance to paint Cassidy as an establishment tool.

"With Republican registration picking up and GOP candidates running for and claiming more offices, the volatile process of having to pick a favorite child in a high-profile race is here to stay," write John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford in LaPolitics Weekly.

Villere is no stranger to intraparty factionalism. He was elected to the post in 2004 with promises of unity, four years after moderates aligned with Gov. Mike Foster ousted religious conservatives. Villere faced criticism in 2010 when he ran for lieutenant governor while serving as chairman, then funded robo calls against fellow Republican Dardenne, who won the election.

Villere also presided over the 2012 state party convention in Shreveport. Whether you blame restless Ron Paul supporters or rule-changing party leaders for the chaos that ensued there, it lives on in YouTube infamy.

Yet another party split emerged during last year's legislative session, when Jindal, GOP officials and business lobbyists publicly blasted a group of Republicans colloquially known as the "fiscal hawks." While many Republicans buy the hawks' assessment that Jindal improperly balances the budget with "one-time money," many were aghast at budget discussions between the hawks and Democrats that might have led to a $329 million tax break reduction.

While some budget watchers see a difference between eliminating or shrinking a tax exemption and reducing a subsidy paid out in tax credits or "rebates," the Jindal administration generally does not make that distinction, and some of the hawks were accused of supporting a $329 million tax hike. Republican supporters of that unsuccessful deal may find themselves with strong challengers on their right in the next election.

Eventually a budget was crafted that all sides could live with. Rep. Brett Geymann of Lake Charles, the unofficial leader of the fiscal hawks, says he doesn't expect a repeat of last year's squabble, thanks to recent reforms and the fact that the "budget's not in as bad a shape as it was last year." This year's biggest intraparty flashpoint so far has been the Common Core education standards, which are supported by Republican-friendly business interests but vehemently opposed by much of the grassroots.

"We have different philosophies within the party, because the party is bigger now," Geymann says. "We're very divided over Common Core, as are [Republicans] on the national level." Geymann's bill to scrap Common Core and start over on new standards failed in committee April 2.

The newest faction is the Louisiana Legislative Conservative Coalition, so far consisting of a handful of House members and chaired by Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican. Seabaugh did not respond to interview requests for this story, but he told LaPolitics that he wants to counter a leftward drift in the caucus caused by former Democrats jumping on board.

"I'm not naming names," Seabaugh reportedly said, "but there are some people who sit in those delegation meetings who wouldn't know a conservative thought if it popped in their heads." He added that he hopes to set the stage for a potential Vitter administration.

Rep. Barry Ivey, a Central Republican and coalition member, says he doesn't expect the group to try to move the party to the right. He wants to focus on crafting conservative policies, not creating some sort of litmus test.

"As Republicans, nationwide and at all different levels, our biggest problem has always been the infighting," Ivey says. "If you're with the party 90% of the time, that's not too bad."

Who's in Charge

When asked who leads the Louisiana Republicans, Goidel chuckles.

"Oh God, that's a great question," he responds. "There is no clear, undisputed leader."

Nominally, Villere is the chairman. Functionally, one might expect Jindal, the highest-ranking elected official, to be the leader.

But Louisiana is in the ironic position of having a governor who spends much of his time trying to get on the national stage and a U.S senator who looms over state politics. The two are said to have a prickly relationship, and Vitter is known publicly to criticize Jindal from time to time.

It's not surprising that Jindal's power in Louisiana politics is waning, now that his approval ratings have sunk from their first-term heights and he's well into lame-duck status. But it's striking how little credit the governor generally gets for the state's decisive flip from Democrat to Republican among white voters.

"We don't really think of what happened in the state as the Jindal realignment," Goidel says. "I think the fact that he's been focusing nationally has always left a gap that other leaders have been trying to fill."

Jason Dore, the state GOP's executive director, says Jindal has assisted on about $5 million in fundraising as a congressman and governor, which helps the party compete at every level. The party's annual budget averaged only about $500,000 before Jindal's involvement and more than $1 million since, Dore says.

Beyond fundraising, Timmy Teepell, Jindal's longtime political adviser, says Jindal has helped clarify what Republicans stand for in Louisiana: smaller government, low taxes, and economic growth. The state's economy consistently has outperformed the nation's on Jindal's watch, Teepell adds.

But some observers and lawmakers wonder where the state GOP would be today if Jindal had made party development a bigger priority. Scott McKay, conservative pundit and publisher of The Hayride website, generally doesn't buy into the popular narrative that Jindal spends too much time out of state. But on this issue, he says the critics may have a point.

"I'm not sure that he has plugged in enough with local Republican people and the conservative activists around the state," McKay says. "I know that there are people who are dissatisfied."

But Vitter has made party building a top priority and doesn't mind backing conservative Republicans against those he sees as moderate. He established the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, which recruits candidates and helps fund campaigns, shortly after his first Senate victory and has close ties with officeholders throughout the state. By contrast, Jindal often seems aloof and hasn't formed many close relationships with lawmakers.

"[Vitter] may actually have more loyalty with the activists in the party than Jindal does," McKay says. "That may be less of a criticism of Jindal than a compliment to Vitter."

On the horizon

Vitter hopes that loyalty pays off next year, when he's running for governor against Dardenne and Democratic Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite, probably along with at least a few others. Edwards doesn't have a statewide profile, although he has more than a year to raise his visibility.

While it's obviously very early and more high-profile candidates (Mitch Landrieu? John Georges? Jim Bernhard?) could jump in, the race may end up in a Vitter versus Dardenne, all-Republican final. The two already have a bit of unfriendly electoral history; Dardenne didn't endorse Vitter's U.S. Senate re-election bid in 2010, and Vitter backed Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser against Dardenne in 2011.

Democrats again could be relegated (as in the 5th District last year) to playing spoiler by picking Dardenne as the de facto moderate.

"It's a sad testament to the state of the Democratic Party," Stockley says.

But Democrats still do well in urban areas and continue to dominate New Orleans. A Democrat who can hold the base only needs a third or so of the white vote to win, so the right candidate in a personality-driven political environment might still be able to compete statewide.

Democrats' chances may improve after Obama, who is deeply unpopular in rural and suburban Louisiana, leaves the White House. It's also possible that an ultra-conservative, fully Vitter-ized Republican Party will alienate moderates, or that Republican stances on social issues such as gay marriage hurt their prospects with younger voters.

But young people don't turn up to the polls nearly as often as their grandparents, and the influx of Hispanic voters that might turn some red states blue (or at least purple) doesn't seem to be happening here (see page 31). For the moment, at least, it's good to be a Republican in Louisiana, and a bunch of white ex-Democrats are hoping it stays that way.

"The next time the Legislature convenes after the 2015 elections, the Democrats will be lucky if they have double-digit white Democrats left in the whole building," Pinsonat predicts.

So the really interesting and important fights may continue to happen within the Republican Party, and the faction that wins will have a chance to run the state. But in the meantime, the GOP has one last big-name Democrat to try to go after.

When the midterm election season ends for most of America in November, we may be just gearing up for a December runoff that could decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate. Which would make Louisiana the focus of the entire political nation.

For those of us who just want to watch Monday Night Football or check the mail without facing a barrage of attack ads, it may be a dismal experience. But for political junkies, and anyone who sells advertising for a living, it could be a race to remember.


Since Barack Obama became president, Louisiana's electorate has become more Republican and racially polarized, according to a report released late last year by John Couvillon of JMC Enterprises.

Democrats have maintained their huge advantage over Republicans among blacks, at 79.5% to 2.5%. While Hispanics and Asians went heavily for Obama's re-election, in Louisiana the "other" category (neither black nor white) is less than 5% of voter registration and is "up for grabs" politically. For now, the racial polarization benefits white Republicans and black Democrats, Couvillon says.


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