Political Horizons: The switcheroo on backing business

You know political season has opened in all Louisiana zones when allegedly pro-business Republicans try to bag a Democratic incumbent for supporting an oil company and saving more than a thousand jobs.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu put a parliamentary block on a bill — thereby postponing the vote until after the summer recess — that would sanction Venezuelan government officials for cracking down on protesters. She was seeking to ensure the penalties would not include blocking crude oil imports to a Lake Charles-area refinery that is owned by the Venezuelan government but employs Louisiana residents.

Her Republican challengers sprayed Landrieu and the rest of the Democratic flock with Twitter ridicule.

Retired Entergy Corp. executive Rob Maness criticized her lack of sensitivity for freedom-loving foreigners. Her other GOP challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, trotted out a spokesman who was equally appalled.

More interesting, however, is that the incident illustrates how true blue Democratic candidates adapt traditional GOP pro-business rhetoric in deep-red Louisiana.

To be fair, arguments to curb the energy industry rarely have much purchase with Landrieu, the sole remaining Democrat elected statewide, or any other politician in this oil and gas state. But it does indicate a strategy.

Democrats likely will attract the most votes Nov. 4 in two congressional districts and Landrieu’s Senate race. But few think the Democratic primary “winners” have much of a shot at beating the Republican candidate in the Dec. 6 runoff.

On a national level, what makes these congressional midterms, which traditionally smack the party that holds the White House, a bit more competitive this time is the dysfunction voters perceive as being caused by angry factionalism within both parties. Just ask GOP U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, of Mississippi, who for generations had been the very symbol of unreconstructed conservatism, only to have to rely on African-American Democrats to save his seat when challenged by an even more conservative candidate.

In Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, the Democratic Party candidate is Jamie Mayo, the mayor of Monroe for the past dozen years.

He rarely completes a sentence these days that does not include a reference to his efforts to create a favorable business environment and to attract private companies to his city. Jobs in private enterprise — not government subsidies — is the way to lift people out of poverty in one of the nation’s poorest districts, Mayo says.

The 5th District, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, has double-digit unemployment going back decades. East Carroll Parish, for instance, averaged an unemployment rate of 14.2 percent in 2013.

Mayo admits to leaning on a message that has crossover appeal for Republicans uncomfortable with some of the more extremist rhetoric favored by some GOP factions. But, he says, promoting economic development is part of him, too.

Louisiana politicians always have defined themselves through a different filter. A flaming liberal here would be considered a moderate conservative in New York or Oregon, said Ryan Cross, a Baton Rouge political strategist working for Republican candidates in several races. His father, the late Mike Cross, was a prominent Democratic state senator from Baker who opposed gambling and pushed anti-abortion legislation. But Mike Cross was defeated because he refused to switch his party affiliation, his son said.

“The (Obama) administration is moving to the left, and the people of Louisiana don’t want that. The politicians are having to adapt their positions,” Ryan Cross said.

He’s reviewed recent polling that shows upward of two-thirds of voters in northeast Louisiana feel that protecting religious freedom is the No. 1 issue that needs to be addressed. That’s more than education, more important than experience or bringing home federal bacon. “That says something about what’s important to Louisiana,” Cross said.

“Democrats have a real problem,” said Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Voter turnout in Louisiana, which used to be among the nation’s highest, has dropped to the middle of the pack during the past couple decades, he said.

And the voters who now turn out at the polls have a more conservative outlook than those who don’t bother to vote and, thus, have more influence in pushing the state policies to the right, he said.

“Many of us are wondering: ‘Is populism dead in Louisiana?’ ” Samuels said.

The answer?

“Probably. Yes, at least until the Democrats can find a way to bring in those people who have become disaffected and have dropped out the process.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com