Stephanie Grace: La. politics following, bucking national trends

Every now and then it feels like Louisiana’s politics are starting to become more like the rest of the country’s.

The latest signal came with the dawn of the new year, when Americans for Prosperity, the tea party-aligned advocacy group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, announced it was setting up a chapter in Baton Rouge.

The group hired local operative Phillip Joffrion, a veteran of Gov. Bobby Jindal and state treasurer John Kennedy’s campaigns, the state Republican Party and former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry’s congressional office, to run it. But there’s no question that AFP, which is already spending big bucks to attack Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s Affordable Care Act vote, has the same agenda here as it has in the 34 other states where it operates, as well as nationally: cutting taxes and spending, fighting regulation and killing the president’s health care law.

Even before the group set up a local shop, Landrieu’s re-election campaign was already playing out as more a national race than a Louisiana-centric one, with the health care law front and center. Whether Landrieu succeeds in shifting the focus to her record on state-specific issues, from federal flood insurance to energy, will tell us a lot about just how much the ground really is shifting and Louisiana politics is becoming more polarized along partisan lines, as Washington certainly is.

Yet for every hint that the state is changing, there are plenty of signs that it’s bent on remaining as atypical as ever — not just because people like it that way, although lots of them seem to, but because certain structural constraints conspire to keep Louisiana, well, weird.

One is the fact that the state Legislature isn’t organized along party lines. Unlike in Congress and most states, there’s no official majority or minority. Leadership is determined not by party or seniority, but more or less by who is in the governor’s circle of trust.

So even though the Republican Party has fought for and won numerical majorities in both houses and party identification has become somewhat more important, things really haven’t changed all that much. For all his national partisan posturing, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s most powerful ally is probably state Sen. John Alario, who switched from Democrat to Republican before seeking the post but hasn’t really altered his politics. And the governor has fought as much or more with lawmakers to his right as with those to his left; despite his single-minded determination to build a conservative image, he’s had to corral Democratic votes to pass a budget and drop his plan to eliminate the state income tax because he couldn’t line up GOP votes. Things like that just don’t seem to happen elsewhere, certainly not in Washington these days.

The bigger impediment to conformity, though, may be the state’s unpredictable open primary system.

For every election that plays out along conventional lines — Landrieu’s re-election, which is likely to play out as a straight Democrat-versus-Republican showdown despite some discord on the right, is the current obvious example — there are others that take unexpected turns.

Consider last fall’s wide-open congressional election for the open 5th District seat. The district is unabashedly conservative, and had a Republican faced a Democrat in the runoff, he would have won easily. But two Republicans finished atop the primary field, and the less conservative of the two, newcomer Vance McAllister, trounced the establishment candidate, state Sen. Neil Riser, in part by appealing to the district’s significant Democratic minority.

Frustrated by the result, some party leaders are reportedly recruiting sponsors to push a switch to party primaries. What they may have forgotten, though, is that Louisiana briefly tried such a system for congressional races but accomplished little other than to increase costs (by holding three elections, party primaries, party runoff and general elections, rather than two) and confuse voters over who could vote in which primary. It didn’t help that the parties adopted different rules; the GOP only let registered Republicans vote in its primaries, which cut out the many, many voters who are registered as Democrats and independents but vote as Republicans. Democrats allowed independents to participate.

It wasn’t long before things got back to normal. Or, rather, for what passes for normal around here.

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