Louisiana is already bucking nationwide trends that have largely favored Landrieu’s Democratic Party. Along with Kentucky and Oklahoma, Louisiana is one of just three states where more new voters are registering as Republicans than Democrats, according to a recent New York Times article. And the change in Louisiana may be the most pronounced.
“Louisiana was the only state to register a gain of more than one percentage point for Republicans as Democratic numbers declined,” the Times reported.
The Bayou State also continues to support the widely unpopular President Bush, with NPR reporting that the president’s approval rating is 20 points higher than the national average.
The surge in GOP support can be attributed to a number of factors, according to Brian Brox, a professor of political science at Tulane University in New Orleans. The largely conservative Democratic voters who returned to the state after Hurricane Katrina may have chosen to switch party affiliations and new voters in the state lean toward the GOP. Another key Katrina factor is more than a hundred thousand black voters never returned after the storm, denying the Democrats another core part of their support.
Add to these demographic challenges a popular Republican Governor — Gov. Bobby Jindal, 37, who is believed to have made the short list of potential running mates for GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain — and it means problems for most Democrats in statewide contests.
“Politically, we’re starting to look a lot more like Mississippi and Alabama,” T. Wayne Parent, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University and author of “Inside the Carnival, Unmasking Louisiana Politics” told NPR.
“We used to pattern pretty well with Ohio or New Jersey in survey research,” Parent said. “But now we pattern a little closer to our Southern states to the east.”
It marks a huge shift for a state that gave the country radical populist Huey Long and went 100 years without a Republican governor and 120 years without a Republican in the U.S. Senate.
This year she faces one of those Democratic Party switchers — Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy who became a Republican in 2007. Although Landrieu has increased her recent polling lead over Kennedy, she is still faced with overcoming voters’ anger with Democratic leaders who were in power in Louisiana during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Landrieu’s margins of victory in 1996 and 2002 came from Orleans Parish, where voter numbers have dropped since Hurricane Katrina, according to The Times-Picayune. The storm’s destruction caused severe damage to many Democratic-leaning neighborhoods. Many of those residents eventually relocated, mostly outside of Louisiana.
In total, about 50,000 registered Democrats left New Orleans since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, John Maginnis, who writes the newsletter LaPolitics, told NPR.
Evacuees were largely working-class black Democrats, Brox added. Voters who have not returned to the state will remain on an inactive list until December 2010, at which point they will be purged from the registration rolls.
Landrieu is counting on her seniority in Washington and her record as a moderate to help her garner votes. And her efforts landed her some recent key endorsements largely because of her pro-business record.
“Sen. Landrieu has been a friend to the [Independent Petroleum Association of America] for many years. She has been there in the tough votes, and we always knew we could count on her,” said Mark Miller, president of Merlin Oil & Gas, according to The Independent Weekly of Lafayette.
The Louisiana Sheriff’s Association also backed Landrieu in part because of her efforts to extend the period of time Louisiana will have to repay emergency funding loans owed to the federal government after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
But the Kennedy team seems unfazed by the news, with Leonardo Alcivar, Kennedy’s communications director, telling The Independent Weekly, “Endorsements from associations are meaningless. Mary Landrieu may be popular with party bosses and association higher-ups, but we know that sheriffs who are fighting on the front lines will be standing with John Kennedy in November.”
Another issue Landrieu has sought to put her stamp on is energy and oil drilling. Landrieu has voted to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and is also a member of the former “Gang of 10,” a group of Democrats and Republicans who want to increase offshore drilling and ensure that states earn a portion of the revenues.
On Aug. 26, the “Gang of 10” became the “Gang of 16,” when six more senators joined the group to back a bill that would lift a ban on oil and natural gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the southeastern U.S. coast, invest $20 billion in petroleum-free motor vehicle development and extend tax credits for renewable energy, according to the AP.
“She’s running on a position of oil issues,” Brox said. “She has tried to establish a record of being supportive of the Republican position on oil. It’s hard for Kennedy to say Landrieu doesn’t believe in this.”
The two hopefuls may get a chance to explain their views face-to-face in coming weeks — The Times-Picayune reports that there are tentative plans in place for at least four debates between Landrieu and Kennedy in the days leading up to the Nov. 4 election.