The LABI Report: Exaggerated claims about ‘watershed’ event

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 20, 2002


Regardless of which candidate won the recent runoff election in Louisiana for the U.S. Senate, it was inevitable there would be exaggerated claims about what a “watershed” event it was.

Certainly, this was an important election, and it undoubtedly has implications, but none that are likely to be trend setting – no matter which candidate won.

Suppose for a moment that Suzanne Haik Terrell had won instead of Mary Landrieu. There were several white Democratic elected officials (mostly male and rural) who were strongly considering switching over to the Republican Party in the wake of her “victory.”

President George W. Bush’s popularity and the Republican gains across the country on Nov. 5, along with Gov. Mike Foster’s favorable ratings, led them to believe a strong Republican trend was afoot among white voters. Those white Democrats have been elected and re-elected in districts that have significant – but not a majority – black voter registration.

They have “kept the D” to draw black votes at election time, while they assumed enough of a conservative stance on issues to secure Republican votes as well.

After watching “moderate” Democrats lose elections on Nov. 5 to Republican candidates, these officials started to worry that the white majorities in their districts would select a Republican over a moderate Democrat in the future.

In the last 20 years, there has been a movement among white voters in Louisiana toward the Republican Party. But trying to extrapolate a viable trend in Louisiana from a very close national election and a Louisiana Senate race with exaggerated importance is a risky venture.

The Republicans would have, no doubt, hailed a Terrell victory as a final warning to moderate white Democrats to switch teams or perish. But just saying it does not make it so.

The number of white Democratic voters – and Republicans too, for that matter – who voted for Landrieu suggests the Democratic “white flight” theory is suspect at best.

By the same token, now that Landrieu has won, Democratic politicos are out spinning the line her election is the blueprint for how to defeat Bush and return Democratic majorities to the U.S. House and Senate.

But what is this “silver bullet” theory based upon? Primarily two aspects: energizing the African American vote and using the trade issue as Bush and the Republicans’ Achilles’ heel.

Factually speaking, the Democrats had every chance to turn out a larger African American vote on Nov. 5 and, for whatever reason, could not do it in numbers sufficient to retake the House of Representatives and keep their hold on the Senate.

As for the trade issue, the Democrats will have to specify which side of Landrieu’s mouth was most effective in the campaign. She hammered Bush and the Republicans for an alleged secret trade deal with Mexico that would allow more sugar to be imported into the U.S.

But at the same time, she excoriated them for increasing the tariffs on imported steel that led to fewer imports for our ports.

Is the protectionist Mary Landrieu the model for the Democrats, or the free-trade Mary?

Pundits and politicians often find trends where they do not exist, and that may well be the case with the national elections and the Louisiana Senate race. Certain candidates performed better than others, and certain states turned out more voters.

The closeness of the recent elections should be the clearest argument neither political party has unleashed a secret formula that will ensure their dominance in future elections.

Winning will still require good candidates, proper positions on pertinent issues – and a heck of a lot of money.

DAN JUNEAU is the president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.