An agent in Vice President Mike Pence’s Secret Service security detail pulls back Louisiana state Attorney General Jeff Landry during a stop at Dearman’s Diner and Soda Fountain in Baton Rouge, Oct. 28, 2019.
“If politics is like show business, then the idea is not to pursue excellence, clarity, or honesty but to appear as if you are, which is another matter altogether.” 
― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

TWO

HERE WE ARE NOW, ENTERTAIN US

In 2019, as a part of the Pew Research Center’s survey on the state of political discourse in America, participants were asked to describe how Trump’s rhetoric made them feel. Most Democrats used words like “concerned, exhausted, angry, insulted and confused.” Republicans said “happy, proud, and hopeful.” But the most common response among Trump’s supporters: Entertained.

This seems entirely unsurprising but also illuminating, a reminder that Trump captured the majority of Republican presidential primary voters in 2016 by touring the country and hosting campaign rallies that were part religious revival, part stand-up comedy routine, and part variety show. The only thing missing were live animals. Free Joe Exotic! (No, not really).

By November 2016, the gimmick worked well enough to persuade the majority of Louisiana voters, who, as Earl K. Long once observed, “don’t want good government; they want good entertainment.”

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. Photo credit: Lamar White, Jr.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the Louisiana Republican Party is now nothing more than a subsidiary of Trump International, considering how its leaders swiftly moved to “cancel” their senior-most elected official, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, censuring him for committing the unforgivable sin of voting to convict Trump for inciting the Jan. 6th insurrection. Indeed, a week before the verdict, the Republican Women of Bossier Parish, an organization led by former state Rep. Jane H. Smith, adopted a resolution excoriating Cassidy simply for stating that he intended to be an impartial juror and would let the facts guide his decision. For party officials, principles and policy were secondary to blind obedience to the disgraced former president.

“You no longer represent the majority of people in Louisiana who recently voted you into office,” state Rep. Blake Miguez, chair of the Republican Legislative Caucus, tweeted at Cassidy. “Don’t expect a warm welcome when you come home to Louisiana!” Cassidy’s 40-point primary victory over 14 challengers didn’t mean that voters were sending him to D.C. to “vote his conscience” or “do the right thing or whatever he said he was doing,” as a Pennsylvania GOP official recently reminded Cassidy’s colleague Pat Toomey.

Support for the former president in Louisiana may seem wide, but in actuality, it’s never been nearly as deep as his loyalists imagine it to be.

Consider that in 2012, former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney—now considered persona non grata among Trumpists— captured more votes in Louisiana than anyone else in state history. Four years later, the title would belong to Donald Trump (who subsequently beat his own record in 2020). The Louisiana press occasionally referenced Trump’s status as Louisiana’s all-time top vote-getter to illustrate the popularity of his “movement” in the Pelican State, which is interesting considering that Mitt Romney carried Louisiana by nearly the same exact margin as Trump and that John McCain, four years before Romney, won Louisiana by an even larger margin.

Put another way, in 2016, Trump received only 23,376 more votes than Romney had in 2012, 1.178 million versus 1.152 million, roughly equivalent to the overall increase in turnout. In 2016, with Trump at the top of the ticket, U.S. Senate candidate David Duke garnered 58,606 votes. Without those voters, Trump, whose campaign was endorsed by Duke, would have come up short against Romney’s record.

During the last four presidential elections, the Republican ticket won Louisiana by the following margins: 59%, 58%, 58%, and 58%.

While he certainly has a loud and proud following, Trump has never been especially popular in Louisiana. The chart below tracks Trump’s approval in Louisiana from his first to his last days in office. Even in a state he carried twice, both times by nearly 20 points, he never earned more than a 56% approval rating, and while it’s also true that his approval never dropped below 50% in Louisiana (in contrast to Gallup’s national polling, where it never surpassed 50%), he came awfully close both at the beginning and the end of his term.

It’s also worth remembering that Trump failed to carry the majority of Louisiana Republicans in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, the last time the state held a competitive closed party primary. Despite Trump building a seemingly insurmountable and ironic 24-point lead in the early vote that year, on Election Day, Ted Cruz managed to not only wipe away Trump’s massive lead, he also sank him well below 50%. Trump would finish with 41.45% and Cruz with 37.83%; in fact, for a time, it looked as if Cruz could’ve ended up with more delegates.

Much like his claims about his personal net worth, the value of Trump’s political capital in Louisiana is obviously inflated. Who can forget that in 2019, as the sitting president of the United States, he flew to Louisiana on three separate occasions to campaign against the reelection of Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards as governor?

When Edwards was forced into a runoff against Baton Rouge businessman and Republican insider Eddie Rispone, Trump, rather predictably, not only took the credit for keeping Edwards under 50%, he also invented, out of thin air, a claim that until his 11th hour rally in Lake Charles, polling showed Edwards had a 66% lead.

LSU numbers guru Mike Henderson was able to determine that Trump’s visit to Lake Charles wasn’t nearly as effective as his supporters believed it to be, boosting turnout in and around Calcasieu Parish by a paltry 2,300 votes. Trump would fly back down to Louisiana for a final rally with Rispone, but in the end, he was simply preaching to an ever-dwindling choir. Edwards surged back and ended up beating “Phony Rispone” by 41,000 votes.

The 2019 gubernatorial election underscores a truism about Louisiana politics: The electorate in state contests is different than the one that turns out during the congressional midterms and presidential elections.

You may be wondering: What does this have to do with Jeff Landry? Well, there’s a reason Landry, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, and LA GOP Chairman Louis Gurvich are currently floating the idea of scrapping the state’s jungle primary system and returning to a closed party primary system in state elections. When John Bel Edwards prevailed over David Vitter in 2015, he broke the Democratic Party’s losing streak of 14 consecutive statewide elections. Because of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s loss the year before, Edwards became the only Democrat in Louisiana to occupy a statewide office, a distinction he continues to hold today.

Notwithstanding Edwards’ successes, the Louisiana Democratic Party is— arguably— weaker now than ever before, after 70% of the disproportionately rural, suburban, and exurban members of its state central committee voted to install a substantially more conservative leadership team, shifting power away from progressives in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and to Republican-heavy Lafayette and Ouachita Parishes. Recently, the party’s newly-elected First Vice Chair, state Rep. C. Travis Johnson, canceled a campaign fundraiser as a result of the backlash he received after he circulated an invitation listing prominent Republicans as sponsors of the event, including co-host Blake Miguez, the far-right Landry protege, two-term state representative, and acclaimed Bill Cassidy Twitter troll.

If Democrats fail to recruit or coalesce behind a qualified candidate (which appears to be a real possibility), then far-right ideologues like Landry and Hewitt would likely find any attempts at expanding their base much more challenging than moderate Republican candidates like Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser or U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, both of whom have been named as potential candidates in 2023. A closed party primary, on the other hand, would, at least initially, advantage the partisan purists.

It is worth noting that when Camille Gravel wrote the statute that created the jungle primary system on behalf of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1974, the belief had been that it would bolster Democrats, who had dominated state politics for nearly a century, and only further marginalize Republicans. Instead, however, Republicans learned how to game the new system to their advantage, which is the reason Edwards is sometimes sarcastically referred to as the “father of the Louisiana Republican Party.” A return to a closed primary system may prove advantageous to hard-liners like Landry in the short-term, but there is a good reason to believe that in the long-term, it would primarily benefit Democrats, particularly in elections in which voters would have a choice between a right-wing extremist and a moderate on the left.

Among those said to be eyeing the Governor’s Mansion, no one has earned as much public opprobrium or encountered more backlash than Landry. Indeed, because of his penchant for provocation and his persistent presence in the press, tallying each and every one of Landry’s petty political squabbles and courtroom catastrophes can be challenging.

Next page: I FEEL STUPID & CONTAGIOUS.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.