The specific details may have been new, but the recent party switch of Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.) was déjà vu all over again for voters in the Bayou State.
Over the past two decades, Louisiana has produced more high-profile party switchers in its Congressional delegation than any other state.
Among current House Members, four of the five Republicans were either elected to public office as Democrats or worked for a Democratic Member of Congress.
Rep. Richard Baker (R) was elected to the state House as a Democrat in the early 1970s before switching parties in 1985, one year before winning the 6th district House seat.
Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) held the southeastern Louisiana 3rd district as a Democrat from 1980 through 1995, switching to the GOP in August of that year. He was not opposed for re-election in 1996.
Rep. Jim McCrery (R) was a lifelong Democrat and a Congressional aide to then-Democratic Rep. Buddy Roemer in the early 1980s. But McCrery ran for Congress in a 1988 special election as a Republican, and Roemer, too, switched parties prior to an unsuccessful 1991 gubernatorial run.
Even Reps. William Jefferson and Chris John, the other two Democrats in the state’s delegation, have been approached by Republicans to switch parties in recent years but have turned down the opportunity.
So why is jumping sides so prevalent in a state that has never sent a Republican to the Senate, where Democrats control both houses of the state legislature by two to one margins and where the party has held the governorship for all but 12 of the last 137 years?
As expected, partisans on each side offer their own spin on this seeming paradox.
“People in Louisiana like a lot of spice in their food and as a result they get heartburn easier,” said Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson. “Talk of rolling back [President Bush’s] tax cuts gave Congressman Alexander a strong case of it.”
Rich Masters, a former senior staffer for Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) and now a lobbyist for Qorvis Communications, said the reason for the party switching “is a lack of courage on these peoples’ part.”
But rhetoric aside, interviews with current and former Louisiana Members and staff point to several specific reasons why Louisiana has become a party-switching hotbed.
First and foremost is the state’s open primary system, the only one of its kind in the United States.
Under Louisiana law, all candidates for a particular office run in an open primary in November. If no one receives 50 percent of the vote, the two top votegetters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to a December runoff.
Like many recent controversies in Louisiana politics, the open primary can be traced to former Gov. Edwin Edwards (D).
Edwards claimed the state’s top office in 1971 only after winning a Democratic primary, a runoff and then a general election in quick succession. After he was inaugurated, Edwards pushed a bill through the Legislature to create an open primary.
Edwards’ plan has had myriad consequences, not the least of which is a steep decline in the power of political parties.
Because political parties have less control over selecting nominees, “they have less control over threatening them not to do something,” said former Louisiana Rep. Jimmy Hayes (R), now a lobbyist at Adams and Reese.
Hayes himself is a party switcher, having represented the southwestern Louisiana 7th district as a Democrat from 1986 until late 1995. He ran as a Republican for the Senate the following year, taking just 6 percent in the open primary.
Hayes added that the decreased power of state parties in Louisiana has led them to become captive to the ideological right and left.
“The state party mechanisms are not reflective of the voting population,” said Hayes. “As a result, there is not philosophical connection to the local party.”
In a conference call last week, Alexander seemed to hint at this disconnect with the state party.
Alexander praised House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as well as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) but said it had grown “increasingly hard to represent my district at home.”
“Some of the [national] leaders had accepted the fact a while back that I represented a conservative district, but I was picking up a lot of pressure at home,” Alexander said.
Another major reason for the prevalence of party switching in Louisiana has been the importance voters place on personality over party affiliation.
Louisiana has been the incubator of some of the most colorful politicians of the past century, a list led by former governor and Senator Huey “Kingfish” Long, who was assassinated in 1935.
The cult of personality surrounding Long was transferred to his brother Earl, who served as governor; his son Russell, who served as Senator; and then to Edwards, who served four terms as governor between 1972 and 1995.
At times, Sen. John Breaux (D) seems the most recent incarnation of Louisiana’s desire to elect colorful politicians regardless of their political stripes.
First elected to the House in 1972, Breaux will retire at the end of this Congress, following three Senate terms in which he has been the state’s most consistently popular politician.
Two open-seat races in Louisiana show the power of personality and cross-pollination of parties in the state’s politics.
In the 3rd district, where Tauzin is retiring at the end of the year, Breaux’s son, John Breaux Jr., cut a $1,000 check in late July to Billy Tauzin III, who is running for the 3rd district seat this fall.
Breaux, the godfather of Tauzin III, appeared at the Republican’s campaign kickoff even as he emphasized that he was not endorsing Tauzin’s candidacy.
In the neighboring 7th district, a spirited race is under way to replace John, who is running to succeed Breaux in the Senate.
State Sens. Willie Mount and Don Cravins are running as Democrats, while national Republicans have coalesced behind cardiologist Charles Boustany.
Despite his own party affiliation, Hayes has already cut a $1,000 check to Mount and plans to endorse her because he believes she is the best person to represent the area.
Although most politicians and strategists on both sides of the aisle spoke freely of the influence of the open primary and of the importance of personality on the state’s promiscuous party ties, a number privately offered another reason: race.
By population, Louisiana is roughly 33 percent black, according to the 2001 Census.
But African-Americans make up a much larger share of the Democratic vote — and as a voting bloc, black influence has grown increasingly pivotal in deciding who wins and who loses over the past two decades, state Democrats say. When running against black Democrats, white Democrats in Louisiana sometimes feel they’ll have an easier road if they run as a Republican.
Alexander said that his hand was forced by the decision of Zelma “Tisa” Blakes, a black woman, to file as a Democrat in his 5th district.
“I knew there were several African-American leaders that had been put out with me by my refusal or failure to endorse Senator [John] Kerry [D-Mass.],” said Alexander. “I had been picking up strong vibrations that I was losing my Democratic base.”
Masters said that “it is incumbent for white political leaders to not just sit back and say, ‘This is a party of African-Americans’” but instead to follow the lead of Breaux and Landrieu to advocate for a “broader inclusive party that has black and white, south Louisiana and north Louisiana.”