The Briefing, Vol. II, Issue 43

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso

This week:

  • Landrieu loses, bringing GOP Senate gain to nine
  • The enduring myth of why Democrats lost the South
  • Can Obamacare be repealed in 2015? Yes — maybe.

Senate 2014

LouisianaAs expected, the GOP easily retained the two open House seats that were up in the Dec. 6 runoff. Also as expected, Rep. Bill Cassidy, R, trounced Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., the three-term Democratic senator who had survived so many close calls in the past.

Even so, all told, Landrieu did better than expected, losing by a mere 12 points. This suggests that she still had it in her to stage a rather impressive turnout operation in the runoff — she improved her showing in many places over her November tally, even though she had lagged badly in early runoff voting.

But a good New Orleans turnout operation is no longer enough in the new Louisiana — not even close.

The Louisiana of a decade ago was a thoroughly Democratic state from top to bottom. Democrats’ registration advantage was enormous — they only fell below 50 percent of voters in 2011. The state voted GOP in some presidential races (it still voted twice for Bill Clinton), but before Election Day 2004, Democrats controlled the governorship there, five of the other six statewide constitutional offices, and both U.S. Senate seats, in addition to both houses of the state legislature. With the exception of an occasional GOP governor, the Pelican State had basically been under total Democratic control for more than a century.

But that began to change last decade, when Republican David Vitter won a Senate seat. As of Saturday, Democrats hold no statewide elected offices whatsoever in Louisiana — state or federal — and neither house of the state legislature. In ten years, the Louisiana Democratic Party went from complete control of their state to complete irrelevance.

This realignment, again, literally just happened in the last ten years. The process was probably hastened when Hurricane Katrina hit — not because the storm changed the state’s demographic makeup in the long run (the percentage of black voters living in the state has not changed), but because the storm caused upstate white voters to question the logic of electing Democrats, based on the way local officials handled the storm. The fallout for then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, D, was horrendous — so bad that she chose not to run for a second term, in effect ceding the governorship to her 2003 rival, the up-and-coming Rep. Bobby Jindal, R. The party faithful were already losing faith in the party by that point, but that was the last straw.

If you want to understand how Louisiana changed in that decade — and how it didn’t change — just compare Landrieu’s last runoff victory in 2002  (against Republican Sue Terrell) to Saturday’s result. Landrieu won that 2002 race by only three points, but look at how she did it (at left). Then look at what was different on Saturday (at right):


New Orleans has changed less than one might expect — Landrieu’s 72,000-vote margin in Orleans Parish on Saturday was only slightly less than the 79,000-vote margin she got in the 2002 runoff. What has really changed is that so many of those other parishes in the center and west of the state just don’t go blue anymore. All of southwest Louisiana has gone solidly Republican. So has much of the northern, Protestant part of the state, and so have several of the more populous Catholic parishes in the southeast.

The only parish that Landrieu lost in 2002 and won in 2014 was tiny Saint Bernard, at the far eastern tip, and it was quite close. What these maps show is that the state’s politics changed with the voting habits of the culturally conservative rural areas both at the low and the high elevations. 

People fail to appreciate that Louisiana, like much of the deep South, remained solidly Democratic until the turn of the century. This fact flies in the face of one of America’s most enduring popular political myths — a very self-serving Democratic myth that their party sacrificed the South in order to advance black civil rights. This is untrue on a number of levels. The South — and especially the Deep South — remained Democratic for decades after Lyndon Johnson, with a lot of help from congressional Republicans, made the 1964 Civil Rights Act law. At that time, Johnson lamented that his party would lose the South for generation — yet it helped him win a landslide election victory over a Republican who opposed the law, and then Democrats kept winning big in the South for decades afterward.

Louisiana only started becoming a Republican state last decade. The same can be said of other southern states such as Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Kentucky still hasn’t gotten there on the state level.

The Civil Rights Act did cost Democrats, but not in the way most people think. Without racism, southern Democrats had nothing to keep people interested in their party. Throughout the early and middle Twentieth Century, white southerners had voted Democratic to uphold the cause of using the state as a weapon against black people. Once the whole horrible Southern Nationalism issue was off the table in the late 1960s, Southern Democratic parties could no longer control the same kind of allegiance as before. People who voted that way reflexively are only now dying off. Voters gradually began making their decisions based on other issues. The South changed. Party politics very gradually became more competitive. By the 1990s, Republicans started to win in Southern states.

But this was a very gradual process. As the New York Times’ Nate Cohn documented recently, Democrats continued to control as much as 60 percent of the Deep South’s governorships, U.S. Senate seats, and legislatures until 2004 — forty years after the Civil Rights Act. Civil rights might have destroyed the Southern Democratic Party’s raison d’etre, but it is nothing short of insane to claim that people started voting Republican in the 2000s because of something that had happened forty years earlier.

The Democratic Party has moved far to the left of where it once was on cultural issues — especially abortion — and it’s finally caught up with them.

Another note about Landrieu’s loss — it means that 30 of the 60 Democratic senators who voted for Obamacare on Christmas Eve 2009 will be gone from the next Congress. Not one has gone on to another elected office, such as governor. Sixteen of the 30 were replaced by Republicans. In contrast, 14 of the 39 Republicans who voted against it are now gone, but only one (Dick Lugar of Indiana) was replaced by a Democrat. (Or two, if Maine’s independent Sen. Angus King is counted as a Democrat.) When Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks of Obamacare as a huge political mistake for Democrats, he has good reasons for doing so.

The hope among Republicans is that some of the newer Democratic senators are less wedded to Obamacare, and might be willing to accept major changes to the law, even if they wouldn’t vote to repeal it outright. However, it is worth noting that several of the new Democratic senators voted for Obamacare when they were members of the House — including Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Gary Peters of Michigan, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. 


Obamacare: President Obama is a lame duck, but he is still president until January 2017. And Republicans have a decent-sized majority of 54 seats, but they are a far cry from a filibuster-proof majority. These two facts combined suggest that there isn’t much they can do about Obamacare until after the next presidential election. Even if they can find six Democrats to help them pass repeal, there is no way they can override Obama’s veto.

But now there’s a new wildcard at work — a case in the courts, which could give immense leverage to those hoping to minimize the law’s damage. Randy Barnett, a Georgetown Law professor who was involved in the last major round of Obamacare litigation, outlined last week how Obamacare could be repealed next year in a must-read oped for USA Today. It is not necessarily the most likely scenario, but it isn’t a longshot either. 

Everything depends on the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision in King v. Burwell, the sibling of the famous Halbig case that was litigated in the federal D.C. Circuit Court of appeals. Two circuits took opposite sides on the question of whether the Obamacare law’s subsidies — and thus its employer mandate and penalties — only apply in states that set up their own health insurance exchanges. The Supreme Court has now agreed to take up the question.

If the Court rules as it did in Halbig, it would create a lot of chaos — and that alone could discourage it. Subsidized customers in the 34 states that didn’t set up their own exchanges would suddenly have to pay the full, marked up Obamacare prices for their insurance, as many other middle class customers must already. That makes the court’s job harder if justices want to read the law as the Halbig Court did.

Barnett’s suggestion is to make the Supreme Court’s job easier by offering an alternative to chaos. By drafting and moving legislation that would replace many key elements of Obamacare and (ideally) pull premiums downward for everyone, the new Republican Congress could make it much easier for the court to read the language precisely as it was written and passed. Obama would nearly have to sign it in order to save face and prevent massive rate hikes.

The warning here, however, is that some conservatives will be inclined to oppose such a thing in principle as a way of “saving” Obamacare — even the law is gutted even as it is “saved.”

It’s probably not worth speculating too much about this possibility yet, as it all depends on the Supreme Court making a particular ruling. It might never happen at all. But Republicans can prepare for and perhaps even encourage an anti-Obamacare ruling in the King case by crafting a system that lets Obamacare survive in name only. It might seem like a prudent way of handling the situation. But if they do, there could be a very tricky intra-party fight to navigate.