Stephanie Grace: La. Democrats can help swing elections

Outside the big cities, these are rough days for Democratic political candidates in Louisiana. How rough? Well, imagine waking up on a Monday morning, picking up or logging onto The New York Times, and reading this assessment from one of the state’s best-known pollsters:

“It’s a different world than Louisiana was six years ago,” said Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media and Opinion Research in an article about the difficult re-election battles facing three southern Democratic senators in 2014, including Mary Landrieu. “We do not have Democrats who win anything in this state today.”

Now, when it comes to Landrieu herself, I’d argue that Pinsonat isn’t leaving enough wiggle room. Landrieu has won three tight races, the most recent the 2008 victory he referenced. Sure, she’s in for the fight of her life — again — and her approval rating dipped to 46 percent in SMOR’s most recent poll, down 10 points from earlier this year. But the survey was taken when the news about President Barack Obama’s health care law, which she backed, was at its worst. What goes down could go up again, particularly if Landrieu succeeds in shifting the focus to less divisive issues, if healthcare.gov continues to improve and if voters start to see the benefits of expanded coverage, as many inevitably will.

The same goes for her brother Mitch, who won two easy races for lieutenant governor before becoming New Orleans mayor, and still polls well statewide.

Outside that particular gene pool, though, Pinsonat’s right on target. Given Louisiana’s hard swing to the right in recent years, it’s not a good time to be a Democratic candidate.

In a backhanded way, though, a pretty good time to be a Democratic voter. If there’s a silver lining to the state’s new one-party dominance, it’s that Democrats have the power to tip the balance from the outside, when they put their collective efforts behind the less conservative of the Republicans in a given race.

Consider the 2011 statewide elections: Democrats couldn’t muster a single viable candidate for any of the statewide offices on the ballot, from governor on down to commissioner of agriculture. But the cycle did feature two hotly contested races, between Republicans Jay Dardenne and Billy Nungesser for lieutenant governor, and Tom Schedler and Jim Tucker for secretary of state.

While victors Dardenne and Schedler surely benefited from being incumbents, they may have gotten a further boost from their opponents’ efforts to paint then as insufficiently conservative — which sent signals to moderates and liberals that they might be more their type — and from the presence in both opposing camps of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the sort of Republican that Democrats love to oppose, even if it’s by proxy.

A similar pattern played out in the recent 5th Congressional District runoff.

With two Republicans going head to head, the one perceived as more accommodating, Vance McAllister, easily beat initial favorite Neil Riser. Again, Riser’s effort to paint McAllister as less than a true believer, reinforced by several major Democratic endorsements and his support for expanding Medicaid in the state, clearly helped the newcomer more than it hurt him. Same can be said for Riser’s links to another polarizing Republican, Gov. Bobby Jindal.

All this is worth keeping in mind as the next governor’s race rapidly takes shape. Vitter now says that he’s a month away from a decision, which is widely expected to be “yes.”

Dardenne’s in, and other Republicans might be too, although a Vitter candidacy would likely keep at least some on the sidelines. The Democrats also have a candidate, an engaging but relatively unknown state representative, John Bel Edwards.

Democratic party leaders are chomping at the bit to re-establish a statewide presence and go head to head with Vitter. But the party’s voters have reason to be torn; do they go for it, support one of their own, and risk losing to Vitter in a runoff? Or do they play defense and cast their lot with a more palatable Republican who, with Democrats’ help, would have a better shot at beating Vitter one on one? Do they vote with their hearts or with their heads?

That’s not a choice many Democrats will relish having to make. Still, it’s better than having no choice at all.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.