Home » Why a GOP plan to aid a Louisiana Democrat could get nixed by the courts

Why a GOP plan to aid a Louisiana Democrat could get nixed by the courts

Republican Gov. Jeff Landry and his allies are using a special session of the legislature that began on Monday to push a new congressional map that would likely cost the Louisiana GOP a seat in the U.S. House but also punish one of the governor’s intraparty foes. A committee in the state House also approved a Landry-backed bill that would replace the Pelican State’s unusual all-party primary system with traditional party primaries, a move that could allow Landry to exercise greater control over the GOP.

Louisiana Republicans currently hold five of the state’s six U.S. House seats, but the proposal Landry is supporting, which advanced out of a state Senate committee on Tuesday, would almost certainly see GOP Rep. Garret Graves replaced by a Democrat.

Landry even appears to know exactly which Democrat he wants that to be: NOLA.com’s Tyler Bridges reported over the weekend that the governor wants to aid state Sen. Cleo Fields, a “political friend” who previously served in Congress from 1993 to 1997. However, voting-rights advocates who’ve been pushing for a second Black-majority district aren’t happy with this new plan, as we’ll discuss.

Landry could also eliminate even more of his enemies if he succeeds in transforming how the state elects its politicians. Currently, candidates for most offices other than president all run together on a single ballot; if no one wins a majority of the vote, then the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a runoff.

But Landry instead wants candidates to compete in separate party primaries―a shift that could make it easier for the governor to pressure disobedient Republican legislators who no longer would be able to rally Democratic voters to their defense.

Landry called this special session because a federal court previously barred the state from using its current congressional map, finding that it likely violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to create a second district where Black voters could elect their preferred candidates.

About a third of Louisiana’s residents are Black, but the boundaries the Republican-dominated legislature approved in 2022 established five heavily white House seats, all of which are represented by white Republicans. The sole majority-Black constituency is Rep. Troy Carter’s safely Democratic 2nd District, which is also the only one where Donald Trump didn’t take at least 60% of the vote in 2020.  

A federal district court has given the legislature until Jan. 30 to draw up a new map that creates a second seat with a Black majority, with a trial set to begin Feb. 5 should lawmakers refuse to act. But thanks to the schedule Landry set, legislators will have even less time to get the job done: The eight-day special session will conclude on Jan. 23 because many lawmakers will immediately fly to the nation’s capital for Washington Mardi Gras, which has long been a can’t-miss event for Louisiana’s political class. (The headliner this year is New Orleans Saints legend Drew Brees.)

The map introduced Monday evening by Republican state Sen. Glen Womack—a map that Landry backs and that a state Senate committee advanced Tuesday—would transform Graves’ 6th District from a constituency that Trump would have carried 64-33 in 2020 into a majority-Black seat that would have favored Joe Biden 59-39, according to Dave’s Redistricting App.

Womack would achieve this by snaking the new district diagonally across the state, from Shreveport in the northwest corner to the state capital of Baton Rouge, some 250 miles away. The district would incorporate heavily Black areas in the two cities at either end, as well as in cities like Alexandria and Lafayette and in more rural communities in between. Carter’s 2nd District around New Orleans, meanwhile, would still be reliably blue.

This is not the map that voting-rights advocates want, though. The Louisiana Illuminator writes that the plaintiffs who successfully sued to block the current map prefer proposals that would make GOP Rep. Julia Letlow’s 5th District in northeastern Louisiana majority Black. Civil rights groups argue that their approach would create a far more compact seat than the one Womack devised, but Republicans voted down that map on Tuesday.

Graves also isn’t a fan of the proposed changes, which he argues would place communities that have little in common together in one district. The congressman’s statement did not mention the issue of Black representation, but he did reference NFL loyalties, complaining that Womack’s map “combines Saints fans with Cowboy fans.”

House Speaker Mike Johnson, who represents the 4th District, was also angry, but for different reasons. Johnson objected to the elimination of a Republican seat in the first place, imploring legislators Tuesday to defend the current map’s validity in court rather than pass new boundaries.

“Should the state not prevail at trial,” he said in a statement, “there are multiple other map options that are legally compliant and do not require the unnecessary surrender of a Republican seat in Congress.” Landry, however, sought to rebut Johnson’s complaint in a Monday interview. “The court has us basically with a gun to our head,” he told NOLA.com.

But it’s Graves who’s been in the danger zone ever since Landry won last year’s race to replace termed-out Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. The congressman had spent about a year publicly considering running for the post, continuing his flirtations even as Landry, then the state’s attorney general, emerged as the front-runner.

Graves ultimately took a pass, but he instead urged Stephen Waguespack, who previously led the state’s U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate, to serve as a Republican alternative to far-right Landry. That bet didn’t come close to paying off, however: Landry beat the leading Democrat, former state transportation secretary Shawn Wilson, by a giant 52-26 margin, with Waguespack taking a distant third, with just 6%

Bridges says that Graves could be a possible opponent for Landry in 2027, but the notoriously vengeful governor may be more fixated on settling old scores from 2023. One critic warned last year that voters should be aware of “the various warnings and threats [Landry’s] sending to potential opposing candidates and their supporters, boasting ‘I will be governor and I won’t forget.'”

Landry isn’t the only powerful Louisiana Republican whom Graves alienated last year. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who serves the 1st District, told Politico that Graves sabotaged his bid for speaker by spreading false rumors about his health. By contrast, Letlow has some well-placed friends watching out for her: Womack said Monday that he wants to protect “my congresswoman,” while Bridges relays that many GOP legislators don’t want to endanger the only woman who represents Louisiana in either chamber of Congress.

Fields, a Democrat who chairs the state Senate’s redistricting committee, also enjoys a strong relationship with Landry despite their differing political affiliations. Bridges says that while Fields endorsed Wilson last year, he was “widely believed by political insiders” to have done little to help the Democratic candidate. Fields, according to Bridges, worked hard to turn out Black voters for Edwards in 2019, but he put no such effort into aiding Wilson’s long-shot campaign to become the state’s first Black person elected to statewide office since Reconstruction.

But as Fields learned the hard way twice in the 1990s, there’s no guarantee that Womack’s map would survive a court challenge. Following the 1990 census, the legislature, which was dominated by conservative Democrats at the time, created a second majority Black district that the 29-year-old Fields sought and won, a victory that made him the youngest member of the House when he took office.

But the courts were unhappy with the sprawling 4th District (shown in the top-right map at the top of this post), a skinny Z-shaped constituency that hugged the state’s northeastern borders with Arkansas and Mississippi. Federal judges struck down the oddly configured district as an impermissible racial gerrymander, saying the plan was “so irrational on its face that it can be understood only as an effort to segregate voters into separate voting districts because of their race.”

The legislature replaced the 4th with a new version that linked Shreveport to Baton Rouge―an approach that, as state constitutional law expert Quinn Yeargain notes, looks quite similar to the 6th District that Womack just proposed. Fields won that seat in 1994, though the following year, he badly lost a bid for governor to Republican Mike Foster.

The new-look 4th didn’t fare any better than Fields’ gubernatorial campaign. Federal courts again determined it was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, prompting the state to replace it with a heavily white district that resembled the one it used in the 1980s.

The congressman retired ahead of the 1996 elections rather than face almost certain defeat, but his political career was far from over: Fields was elected to the state Senate the next year, and after being termed out in 2008, he returned to the chamber by winning a competitive intraparty race in 2019.

But if Fields is hoping for a comeback, he should know better than anyone that Womack’s district (numbered the 6th in his plan) could run into the same problems as its predecessors did three decades ago. As plaintiffs have shown, a more compact second Black seat could readily be drawn, but since such a map would cost Letlow reelection, Republican legislators are unlikely to ever consider it.

Landry alluded to the acrimony surrounding the remap in remarks to lawmakers on Monday when he referenced the 1935 assassination of Sen. Huey Long, who had remained governor in all but name despite having left office more than three years earlier. “Now I am aware Huey Long was shot over redistricting,” he joked to legislators (true story!), before adding, “I am hopeful and confident we can dispose of this matter without you disposing of me.”

But it’s the legacy of a different Democratic governor from yesteryear that Landry targeted when he implored legislators to do away with the all-party primary system put in place by Edwin Edwards in the 1970s.

Under the Landry-backed bill sponsored by Republican state Rep. Julie Emerson, races for Congress would be conducted using party primaries starting this year. Starting in 2025, the same method would be used for contests for statewide office, including governor, as well as for the legislature. (These posts aren’t set to be up until 2027, but special elections could be necessary before then.) However, Emerson’s bill would preserve the status quo for races for sheriff, district attorney, and local government.

It would take a simple plurality to win a party’s nomination under Emerson’s proposal, which does not include a provision for primary runoffs. Her bill also says that party leaders could, at their discretion, allow registered independents to participate in their respective primaries.

Landry and his allies, including Scalise and the state GOP, unsuccessfully pushed the legislature to approve a similar switch in 2021. However, one of the leaders in the effort to defend the status quo three years ago is sitting this battle out: While GOP Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser told LaPolitics last week that he wanted to keep Louisiana’s all-party primary in place, he said he wouldn’t stand in the new governor’s way.

But Sen. Bill Cassidy, who may have the most to lose if Landry succeeds this time, spoke out against the plan. Cassidy infuriated his party’s hard-right flank in early 2021, when he voted to convict Trump following the Jan. 6 attacks, and unless there’s a dramatic change in his standing, he’d have a challenging time convincing Republican primary voters to nominate him in 2026.

Cassidy argued Tuesday that switching election systems would be a waste of money and also charged that it would shrink the primary electorate. “It disenfranchises 800,000 Louisianans who are no party,” he said, according to the Shreveport Times’ Greg Hilburn. “Sorry, you’re not in our club. We’re not going to let you in.”

Correction: This piece incorrectly described the 1994 “Z-shaped” version of Louisiana’s 4th Congressional District. It ran along the state’s northeastern borders, not its northwestern borders.

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January 2024