The turnout in the March 8 congressional primaries for Louisiana's First and Sixth Districts offers some hints as to how the political landscape is changing in Louisiana. In the First District, which includes parts of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles parishes as well as all of St. Tammany, Washington and Tangipahoa parishes, most of the action and attention centered on the Republican primary. In that contest, state Rep. Tim Burns' late surge propelled him into second place and took just enough votes off front-running state Sen. Steve Scalise to cause an April 5 runoff. Scalise remains the favorite, but a small turnout in April with nothing else on the ballot could hold some surprises.
Among First District Democrats, UNO instructor Gilda Reed easily bested Vinny Mendoza of Kenner, winning just under 70 percent of the vote.
In the Sixth District, which includes Baton Rouge and eight surrounding rural parishes, both party primaries were hard-fought contests that now require April 5 runoffs. On the Republican side, former state Rep. Woody Jenkins of Baton Rouge faces former federal lobbyist Laurinda Calongne, also of Baton Rouge. Jenkins fell just 43 votes shy of winning the GOP nomination in the primary.
Among Sixth District Democrats, two state representatives and two friends will square off on April 5 for the party nomination: Don Cazayoux of New Roads and Michael Jackson of Baton Rouge. Cazayoux swept the rural parishes and made some in-roads in Baton Rouge, but Jackson, who is African-American, won black precincts handily. Cazayoux led in the primary with 35 percent of the vote to Jackson's 27 percent.
In the locally significant First District, not much has changed demographically. The district has sent Republicans to Congress since 1977, and its conservative bent remains strong. The more interesting dynamic now is the schism between the Northshore and the Southshore parts of the district. Scalise, from Metairie, won more than 73 percent of the Southshore vote. On the Northshore, Scalise held his own against three Northshore opponents, capturing 30.5 percent of that vote.
Overall, Scalise won 48 percent of the GOP primary vote, but turnout could spell trouble for him in the runoff if he doesn't boost the numbers in his home base of Metairie. The Northshore has roughly 54 percent of the voter registration in the First District, and it turned out in substantially higher proportions on March 8. The Southshore turned out just 14,497 votes, compared to the 20,253 votes in Northshore parishes.
Last week, Scalise picked up several endorsements from Slidell officials. He'll need more help on the Northshore to sew this race up and he'll need more help at home in the form of higher turnout. Meanwhile, look for Burns to continue his surge" strategy of criticizing Scalise's legislative record. This one could get ugly, as the winner will be a heavy favorite over Democrat Reed on May 3.
Back in the Sixth District, Jenkins, who won 49.85 percent of the primary vote, seems doomed to forever fall just shy of what he needs to win. As TV secret agent Maxwell Smart used to say, Missed it by that much!"
If the turnout on General Election Day is anything like it was on March 8, the Democrats could win the Sixth District especially if Jenkins, who is divisive even within his own party, is the GOP nominee.
On March 8, Democrats turned out more than 47,000 votes in the Sixth District, while the Republicans turned out less than 30,000. No doubt there's a silent majority" of conservative Democrats waiting to vote for the GOP nominee, but the party probably hurt its chances by allowing only Republicans to vote in its primary and runoff. Democrats allowed most independents and all no party" voters to cast ballots in their primary. With independents already voting twice for Democratic candidates, and with Republicans claiming only 28 percent of the registered voters in this district, the opportunity is ripe for the Democrats to take this seat, which the GOP has held since 1975.
The GOP's euphoria over Gov. Bobby Jindal's win last October could be short-lived as 2008 unfolds. For once, Louisiana may be in sync with national trends that favor Democrats.