Louisiana Proves It: Democrats Can Compete in the South

Posted November 17, 2003 at 3:57pm

On the night before her victory last year, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) gathered her family and staff at New Orleans Lakefront Airport and said, “We may go down tomorrow, but we are going to fight to the bitter end.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Standing next to my oldest sister, Cheryl, who was transformed in the last two weeks of campaigning into a get-out-the-vote coordinator, I whispered, “Girl, I wish we had fought like this in Florida.”

Now a year after that victory, we are celebrating the gubernatorial election in Louisiana. Never in my wildest dreams growing up in the Bayou State would I have believed Louisianans would ever elect a female governor — and, yes, she’s a Democrat. As my distant cousins in Southwest Louisiana, the ragin’ Cajuns, with their bold and spicy sausages, would say, “Laissez les bon temps rouler” — Let the good times roll.

For two straight years, Louisianans have managed to do something Democrats across the country have failed to do — win the big ones. Gov.-elect Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a proud conservative Democrat, went into the runoff as the underdog after capturing less than 20 percent of the vote during the Oct. 4 all-party primary (yes, Louisiana’s electoral system is way behind the curve).

Many believed that Blanco, with her less than flattering style, would fail to reach out to the party’s base. Yet, in less than six weeks, Blanco — with the strong support of Democrats Landrieu, Sen. John Breaux, Reps. William Jefferson and Chris John and the Louisiana Democratic Party — pulled together an impressive coalition that any presidential candidate would salivate over next year.

As a result of Blanco’s and Landrieu’s victories, it’s time for national Democrats to rethink their battleground strategy, which currently includes only one Southern state, so that the Democratic nominee competes in Louisiana. This pivotal Southern state is ready to become part of the party’s electoral recipe for victory.

Blanco’s victory was nothing short of a miracle. She won because she stuck to her core message of genuine elective experience compared to her opponent, Republican whiz kid Bobby Jindal. She also reached out to the 12 percent to 15 percent of undecided voters in the closing days with an attack on the core premise of Jindal’s campaign, which posed him as a problem solver. During the final week, my friends tell me, Blanco ran a TV spot with a staunch Republican doctor claiming that while Jindal ran Louisiana hospitals, he had not “miraculously saved money, but had only cut patients and it was the patients who could least afford to pay.”

Using a classic “third-party endorsement,” Blanco exposed her opponent’s problem-solving skills as cold and simplistic. Subliminally the spot also reminded the undecided about Jindal’s youth and elective inexperience (the whispered issue).

When I called home to talk to family members the night before the election, everyone assured me that it was too close to call. The next morning, my father, Lionel, called to say that a long line was developing outside our home (which doubles as a polling place) in New Orleans. Apparently, the Louisiana Democratic Party was out en masse pulling people out of the grocery stores and the French Quarter and into the polling places. Victory was in sight.

Like Landrieu last year, Blanco won in the waning hours of the competition after rallying the party in the last 48 hours of competition. In the end, Blanco succeeded in using the same electoral recipe as Landrieu and Breaux: an odd mixture of economically deprived rural conservative white voters with urban liberal-leaning African-Americans in the major cities.

Jindal did manage to pull a coup with the endorsements of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, the state’s two leading African-American newspapers and some of the city’s African-American religious leaders and political clubs. While these endorsements made good press clips, they never materialized on the ground. Like most Democrats who win statewide, Blanco won in 51 of 64 parishes and received more than 90 percent of the black vote with an amazing turnout in both Orleans Parish and Baton Rouge, Jindal’s hometown.

Gov. Mike Foster (R), unable to run for a third term, placed everything on the line for Jindal, but in the end his support may have cost the GOP whiz kid some votes. In one of his radio shows, Foster suggested that Blanco’s husband would be running the show. That comment enraged not only women but also men who support female candidates.

President Bush, while not appearing in person, campaigned in other ways through mailings and advertisements, but it wasn’t enough to stop the awesome power of the Louisiana Democratic Party leaders who have shown that they are not intimidated by the GOP’s massive 72-hour ideological and physical assault on the electorate. The Democratic National Committee should fly these leaders to D.C. to advise other state parties on strategies to reclaim the party’s ground game for next year’s presidential showdown.

With this race behind us, national Democrats and their allies can now begin to finalize their strategy for next year’s battle. It’s time to challenge them to give the South a seat at the table. For months, many Southern Democratic chairmen and Members of Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus, have argued with the DNC and others to help us take back the South.

With this victory, these leaders should be open to an honest dialogue before writing off the entire South. Many of the party’s strongest allies — including AFSCME, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers and others — helped the Democratic Governors’ Association pull this victory out of the bag. Next year, these groups may be willing to invest again in some Southern states. By investing in the South, Democrats can give Bush and the Republicans more than a run for their money.

With more than 68 percent of African-American voters residing in the Deep South and so many Senate seats up for grabs, Democrats should take the risk and fight. Louisiana can become our blueprint for action.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.