Alford: The battle for the Senate begins now


If you’re a follower of Louisiana politics, then you’re likely aware that the state House has an upcoming election for speaker in January. In fact, you probably became aware of the 2020 internal leadership election back in 2016, when the current speaker was elected.

On the same day Gov. John Bel Edwards was sworn into office roughly four years ago, Republicans in the House orchestrated a coup of sorts that resulted in Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, becoming an unlikely speaker. The move also resulted in a sitting governor unwillingly being squeezed out of the leadership process—for the first time in recent memory. 

To tell a long story in a short way, House members were finally allowed to taste independence. And no one is willing to give it up. 

Maybe that’s why everyone (or at least it seems that way) is gunning for speaker in 2020. The candidates so far include Republican Reps. Stuart Bishop of Lafayette, Stephen Dwight of Lake Charles, Ray Garofalo of Chalmette, Lance Harris of Alexandria, Barry Ivey of Central, Sherman Mack of Denham Springs, Tanner Magee of Houma, Jack McFarland of Jonesboro, Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales and Alan Seabaugh of Shreveport.

The rumor mills were busy over the weekend suggesting enough commitments have been made to call the lower chamber race. But each internal race is dramatically different from the others, and the upper chamber has its own contest brewing.

The Senate, as you know, is the congenial chamber, where women and men prefer to process their laundry in private before publicly folding and organizing everything in their baskets. Senators fancy themselves diplomats, and more helpful to each other than their House counterparts can be at times. 

When the various candidates for president recently had lunch, however, it looked more like the final table at the World Series of Poker. Some players were hoping others would fold outright, no one wanted to blink and everyone believed they were sitting on four aces. 

Not much was settled over that lunch meeting, which included Republican Sens. Bret Allain of Franklin, Page Cortez of Lafayette, Ronnie Johns of Lake Charles and Rick Ward of Maringouin. Not in attendance was Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Covington, who is also a contender. Which member of this clique has an edge depends on who you want to believe, but in reality all five senators have just been dealt their hands and the game is only beginning. 

Each candidate is finding that hard commitments are difficult to come by in the Senate right now, but that will change soon. Now that we’re in December, wagers will be placed with greater frequency.

Aside from who will claim the big Senate gavel, another minor question involves the Senate’s relatively new secret ballot for the process for nominating candidates. Passed in 2015 by outgoing Sen. Eric LaFleur, the Senate rule calls for its officers, including the president, to be nominated and ultimately elected under the following, according to Secretary Glenn Koepp:

Each senator will receive a secret ballot with the names of all 39 senators eligible to be nominated for president, from which they can select only one senator.

If any senator receives 20 or more votes on the secret ballot, they then become the official nominee for president on the floor. Senators can then vote to confirm the nominee via a vocal vote, or nominate someone else to stand against the nominee, again via secret ballot, as prescribed under the original Senate rules that LaFleur’s 2015 language built upon.

If each senator on the first secret ballot receives less than 20 votes, then the two top vote-getters will advance to a second secret ballot. The same process described above would then take hold if one of the senators receives 20 or more votes.

Some senators, speaking on background, have shared concerns about any internal election procedures to which the word “secret” can be attached. A couple have considered Day 1 motions to revert back to the original Senate rule only. For now, those with a watchful eye on the process are reading and re-reading constitutional law and Senate rules.

No one knows what to expect. Senate President John Alario said this week during a post-election forum at LSU’s Manship School that some shifts in the body should be expected, particularly when it comes to rank-and-file bills. Vote counts specifically could be all over the page next term, with fewer 39-0 or 38-1 tallies. “You’ll have more of a division within the Senate when it comes to votes,” Alario said. 

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.