Alford: An early legislative preview

It’s no secret the Louisiana Legislature has undergone significant changes over the past few election cycles, and that both the House and Senate have been in a constant state of transition. Few political observers, however, recognize that the transition will conclude with the start of the 2020 term of state government. 

If you’re eager to get an early preview of what the next Legislature will look like—its composition, temperament and leanings—look no further than last week’s legislator qualifying period. The number of signups, their party affiliations and historic qualifying trends offer us a crystal ball. 

On the surface, it may seem as if qualifying cleared the way for more of the same. There were 48 members of the Legislature elected without opposition following the 2019 qualifying period, including 37 in the House and 11 in the Senate.

Just don’t forget there are 144 members of the Legislature. Due to the two-candidate fields yielded by the qualifying process, there are at least 11 races in the Senate and 30 in the House that will be concluded following October’s primary balloting. There are another 55 House and Senate races that could go the distance to December runoffs, due to there being three or more candidates in each.

The most notable trends jump right off of the page. Of the white Democrats running for office, 40% are women, primarily recruited through campaigns like one launched by Emerge Louisiana (27 men and 18 women). 

Overall, however, the drop-off is dramatic, with 232 fewer white Democrats running this cycle than in 1987. So far, only three white Democrats have been elected without opposition, including Sen. Gary Smith (SD19), Rep.-elect Francis Thompson (HD19) and Rep. Chad Brown (HD60).

It has been an unrelenting fall from grace for Democrats as a whole, with 341 candidates qualifying in 1987, 190 in 2003 and 132 this cycle. (Of the 42 legislative races that pit members of the same party against each other, 25 are all-GOP elections and another 17 with nothing but Democrats.)

Additionally, a generation gap is developing, meaning lobbyists and associations having to adapt their messaging and tactics for a new audience. The average age of a lawmaker elected during the 2007 cycle was 64, and, without fail, it has decreased each season to 58 in 2011 and 53 in 2015.

Will it dip again in 2019? More than likely, which should bring with it a new attitude and patina for the Capitol. Yet it may not be the most recognizable trend coming to Baton Rouge’s best known marbled halls.

Most notably, women candidates will take up 77 slots on the 2019 legislative ballot, a record. The high watermark comes after a few years of recruiting and advocacy on the part of several groups. But much like the trend of more youthful candidates, these women will need to a win to make an impact on the policy—even if they’ve already made a mark on this election cycle.

Now that qualifying is behind us, the race for House speaker could potentially begin to shape up in a more clearly. Interest is high in the leadership race, which is unusual, particularly this far out from the January 2020 organizational session. 

For the moment, Rep. Stuart Bishop of Lafayette remains the top candidate to watch and may have more votes socked away than most think. With only a minor challenger on the ballot, $100,000 in his PAC and $260,000 in his campaign account, Bishop is positioned to spread the love this cycle. 

There’s still a bit of chatter surrounding Albany Rep. Sherman Mack’s bid for the gavel, but his PAC remains lifeless, with just $1,100. Like Bishop, Mack has a single opponent, but he also has about $10,000 in his campaign account. 

There is also talk about a Rep. Ray Garofalo of Chalmette, who drew no opposition for his seat, and suggestions that a second termer, such as Rep. Jack McFarland of Winnfield could slip into the role—possibly for the first time since former Speaker Bubba Henry in the early 1970s.

(Bishop, Mack and McFarland are all Republicans.)

It’s much more difficult to speculate how the upper chamber’s leadership might shake out. The Senate is expected to vote by secret ballot for its president next term, but at this point we only know what one-third of the body will look like, due to the candidates who qualified without opposition. Plus, the hottest action in the Senate usually takes place behind the scenes. 

Still, the shape of the coming Legislature is as easy to see as it will be impossible to miss. So, no blinking. 

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.