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Louisiana GOP on a Roll 

Funny how Louisiana always seems to buck political trends. When the national political pendulum swings toward one party, the other party seems to do well hereabouts, and vice versa. Consider the current status of the Republican Party nationally and locally.

In Washington, many GOP stalwarts are scrambling for cover in the midst of the Foley sex scandal and steadily declining support for President Bush's war in Iraq. But in Louisiana, things couldn't be better for the Republican Party. It just won two statewide special elections -- without having to go to a runoff in either.

And, going into next fall's statewide elections, the party is poised to capture the House of Representatives (something it's about to lose on the national level, many say) and possibly the Governor's Mansion as well.

Of course, a lot can change in 12 months. Look at how things fell apart for Louisiana Democrats since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept ashore last August. Gov. Kathleen Blanco's approval ratings continue to founder, and the city of New Orleans, once described as a virtual ATM of votes for Democratic candidates, cast a solid majority for Republican candidates in the Sept. 20 special election for secretary of state. Then again, voter turnout statewide barely topped 20 percent -- and it was less than 12 percent in New Orleans. In local black precincts, it was in single digits -- possibly the worst black voter turnout for a statewide election since before the Voting Rights Act.

Such a low black turnout was considered an anomaly at first, but now many are wondering if New Orleans has indeed lost its solid black majority. A recent population count by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed New Orleans as 46.3 percent black. Even if African Americans were under counted, it's clear the city has lost a huge chunk of its black population. That's a major blow to the Louisiana Democratic Party, as black voters have been the most loyal Democratic voters for generations.

All is not lost for the Democrats, however. Displaced New Orleanians can still vote here as long as they haven't registered elsewhere. The question is, do they still care enough to vote after being gone for more than a year? Moreover, how likely will they be to vote a year from now if they're still not back?

We'll know more after the Nov. 7 congressional primaries, especially in the Second Congressional District, where incumbent Democratic Congressman Bill Jefferson faces 12 challengers -- most of them Democrats. Jefferson and his family have the most sophisticated and effective get-out-the-vote apparatus in the state, and this time they're fighting for the mother ship. They will spare no expense.

Jefferson will get no help, however, from national Democrats. My sources tell me that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other party leaders have pulled virtually all the national Democratic money out of Louisiana -- because they don't want Jefferson back in Congress. It was Pelosi, you may recall, who forced Jefferson off the House Ways and Means Committee in mid-June after court documents revealed some of the damning evidence that federal investigators have uncovered in their yearlong investigation of Jefferson.

Sources in the campaign of state Sen. Francis Heitmeier, D-Algiers, confirm that Heitmeier, the lone Democrat in the secretary of state contest, pulled out of the runoff last week after he learned that the national party was going to spend only a small fraction of what he was counting on for voter turnout efforts.

"We asked for $500,000," the source said. "They told us they would send about $30,000 -- maybe $50,000." Heitmeier says his stalled campaign was a victim of Katrina and Rita, but he may also be a victim of national Democratic disenchantment with Jefferson.

For now, the state GOP is crowing. Republicans sense that they have finally turned the tide in Louisiana -- capturing one of our U.S. Senate seats in 2004 and now two statewide offices.

It's less than a year until the primary for governor and other statewide elections. The winds of Katrina and Rita continue to swirl all over the state.


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