Republican Party Consolidates Control of Deep South Statehouses

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — The January 8 inauguration of Jeff Landry as Louisiana governor consolidates Republican Party control of statehouses in America’s Deep South and the region’s shift to more conservative governance.

Nearly 60% of Louisiana voters chose Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Republicans are ready for change at the statehouse in Baton Rouge.

As a candidate and as the state’s attorney general, Landry backed banning gender-affirming medical care for transgender youths, expanding rights for gun owners and enacting a near-total abortion ban without exceptions for rape and incest.

“I’m tired of the government doing everything for everybody, because it makes people lazy,” said retired firefighter Robert Caretto. “I believe in peace through military strength, I believe we shouldn’t make decisions that hurt children with gender changes based on what a small percentage of gay or trans people want, and I believe in strict borders that protect Americans.

“I want to leave this country better for my grandkids, so I want a government that shares my values,” he told VOA. “I’m excited because I think this incoming Louisiana government is a step in the right direction.”

New Orleans event coordinator and Democratic voter Tana Velen sees the new governor as a step backward.

“I’m so worried, especially as a woman, about the direction we’re heading,” she told VOA. “I’m afraid women will lose their lives and their ability to have children because of these decisions being made by politicians instead of doctors, I’m afraid the trans community will no longer have access to gender-affirming care, and I’m afraid his policies will cause Louisiana’s public schools to fall even further behind the rest of the country.”

Outgoing Governor John Bel Edwards “governed for the last eight years as a conservative on most issues even though he was a Democrat,” said Barry Erwin, CEO of the public policy group Council for a Better Louisiana. “When it came to abortion, the right to bear arms and even most fiscal issues, he often sided with Republicans.”

With a legislative supermajority, Erwin said, Republican lawmakers “were able to get most of what they wanted anyway. What they couldn’t do, they’ll be able to do now with Landry as governor. But after they get a few of those higher profile things done in the first year or two, I don’t think things will feel too different.”

 

Shifting Louisiana follows a shifting South

Shifting from a Democratic governor to a Republican governor is part of a decadeslong trend in states across the Deep South. Dillard University professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy Robert Collins said it is partly because past political nuances in the region are gone.

“In America today, politics are more nationalized,” he told VOA. “Democrats are liberal, and Republicans are conservative. You basically either support Trump or you don’t. And everyone basically fits into one of those two categories.

“But from before the Civil War in the 1860s until after the civil rights battles of the 1960s, you had more factions. Rival Democrats could be liberal or conservative, and the GOP was split into liberal and conservative camps, as well.”

There were very few Republicans in the pre-Civil War South because the party’s policies were considered anti-slavery. The economies of southern states, including Louisiana, depended largely on slavery, so voters in the state — who were all white because slaves didn’t have the right to vote — were largely conservative Democrats.

That was mostly unchanged until the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which struck down the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War and finally made it possible for Black Americans at large to vote.

“You would have expected Black voters to align with the Republican Party because they were the party seen to abolish slavery during the Civil War,” Collins said, “but there was no Republican Party in the South in the 1960s. If you wanted your vote to count for something, you had to vote Democrat. So Black southerners became Democrats along with the pro-racism whites — white people were conservative Democrats while Black people were liberal.”

Republicans focused on white, southern Democrats, many of whom were fearful that Black voters were becoming too powerful and were disenchanted with their party for helping pass civil rights laws.

“Republican leaders like Barry Goldwater and future President Richard Nixon saw this disenchantment and offered the Republican Party as an alternative via what is called the ‘Southern Strategy,’” Collins said. “It took decades, but slowly, the conservative Democrats of southern states like Louisiana became Republicans.”

National politics take over

Since Edwards first took office as governor in 2016, Democrats’ share of seats in the Louisiana House of Representatives fell from 41 to 32 out of 105. And within the Republican Party, moderates are losing to more conservative challengers, pushing Louisiana governance further to the right. 

“The other states in the Deep South had already transitioned away from the nuance of local politics,” Collins said, “and with the election of Jeff Landry as governor, it seems Louisiana has finally fully transitioned to the duality of national politics, as well.”

“How do I feel about the direction of our state?” asked Larisa Diephuis, a New Orleans Democrat. “Well, we’re leaving.”