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Louisiana Politics: Undone by the Wind

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, September 25, 2008

BATON ROUGE, La. -- I assume that someone has removed the crushed blue Hyundai from the parking lot of Jimmy Swaggart Ministries. Two days after Hurricane Ike, the car was there with a tree trunk still embedded in its roof. And Ike was a pussycat next to Gustav, which had pummeled the area two weeks before.

But trees weren't the only things uprooted in Louisiana. Much of the state was without power five days after Gustav, so the primary election had to be moved from Sept. 6 to Oct. 4. Louisiana State University even cancelled a football game. It was that bad.

"When Gustav blew through, it really smashed up this election," Scott Hughes, a Republican political commentator in Shreveport, told me.

This is the year that Louisiana was to put order into its electoral system. In the past, some votes on U.S. Senate or House seats would be held in December, well after Election Day. Louisiana's new lawmakers often would arrive in Washington a month after other freshmen had already picked over the choice committee assignments, staff and office space.

Louisiana was also moving to a closed-primary system, whereby Democrats could no longer vote for Republicans and vice versa. Because this process can involve three contests -- a primary, a runoff and a general election -- Louisiana set a schedule that would allow for the final vote on Election Day.

Now primaries are postponed until Oct. 4 and the runoffs until Nov. 4. And once again, Louisiana will be holding congressional elections in December.

In New Orleans' 2nd Congressional District, eight Democrats are vying for the seat occupied by Rep. William Jefferson. One of them is Jefferson himself, who was charged with bribery after $90,000 in cash was found in his freezer.

Early September is still beach and lake season in Louisiana, so the original primary date was expected to produce a very small turnout. In Louisiana politics, small turnouts are generally dominated by older white voters.

Had the primary been held on Sept. 6 as planned, Helena Moreno, a popular white television news anchor, could have pushed Jefferson into a third-place finish and therefore out of the race. Jefferson's chances of making it to the runoff are now improved, and the runoff would have Barack Obama on the ballot.

"Gustav may have saved Jefferson," Hughes opined.

The 4th Congressional District centers on Shreveport and Bossier City in northwest Louisiana. Its congressman, Republican Jim McCrery, is retiring.

Conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats have high hopes for Paul Carmouche, a district attorney. And had the primary been held on Sept. 6, the largely white turnout probably would have put Carmouche over 50 percent, removing the need for a runoff. (His Democratic foes are two African-Americans and a very conservative white candidate considered a long-shot.)

Carmouche remains the Democratic favorite, but the October primary ballot will include races for judgeships and other offices likely to attract more black voters. And any runoff would take place on Nov. 4, with Obama vying for president.

Elsewhere in the South, conservative white Democrats have flocked to the Republican Party. But the 4th District is 62 percent white and only 27 percent Republican. That's because the open-primary system had allowed conservatives to keep the "D" after their names and still participate in the primaries.

As a result, Hughes notes, "In Louisiana, we don't know who the core Republicans are." Are they social conservatives? Small-government types? Libertarians? But with only Republicans now allowed to vote for their three candidates, the party is about to find out.

Louisiana politics were never simple. Add hurricanes into the mix, and the best political planning is gone with the wind.

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