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Democrats try to figure out what happened in Louisiana's election

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Republican Jeff Landry will be Louisiana's next governor, making a huge win for Republicans. It was a surprise upset for the Democratic Party, which has held the office for the past eight years and acted as a counterbalance against a majority Republican legislature. Molly Ryan with member station WRKF in Baton Rouge has more.

MOLLY RYAN, BYLINE: Louisiana has an open primary, which means that usually the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the general election unless a single candidate wins more than 50% of the primary vote. Landry, who's been the attorney general since 2016, won about 52%, avoiding the need for a runoff. He celebrated his resounding victory at a watch party on election night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF LANDRY: And it's a wake-up call. It's a message that everyone should hear loud and clear.

RYAN: But at the polls, Landry's loud and clear message sounded more like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY HUMMING)

RYAN: That's the sound of silence. A lot of people didn't vote for Landry because they didn't vote at all. Estimated turnout was the lowest it's been in a gubernatorial primary in a dozen years at just 36%. And turnout was especially low in blue strongholds like New Orleans, where just over a quarter of registered voters cast ballots. And that meant that Landry was able to win the governorship outright with less than 20% of all registered voters voting for him. Brian Brox, a professor of political science at Tulane University, said several factors played a part in the low turnout.

BRIAN BROX: One is a lack of mobilization. In Orleans Parish, there was a noticeable absence of Democratic Party mobilization, and turnout in - among key demographic groups was relatively low.

RYAN: Compared to the state's last gubernatorial primary in 2019, turnout was especially down among registered Democrats and Black Louisianans. Brox said another factor of the low turnout is that this election happened in an off year with no presidential or congressional elections. And he said there was a sense of inevitability. Landry had long been the front-runner according to almost every poll, and he out-fundraised the other candidates by millions of dollars.

BROX: Many voters might have seen the writing on the wall. When voters sense that elections don't necessarily matter, they don't go out of their way to vote.

RYAN: Democrat Shawn Wilson, Landry's main challenger, had been expected to at least make it to a runoff with Landry, but he only grabbed 26% of the vote. That set off alarms for both state and national Democratic figures.

BRUCE REILLY: I never saw any kind of plan by that party.

RYAN: That's Bruce Reilly. He's a registered independent. As the deputy director of a voting rights organization, he pays close attention to elections. Reilly said the Democratic Party here is in disarray, and the election left him questioning the party's identity in the state.

REILLY: I mean, the Democratic Party elsewhere in America is known as one of reproductive justice and women's rights in that realm. But in Louisiana, that's not the case. And I think that is something that probably really waters down their unity.

RYAN: Since the defeat, several state Democratic figures have called on the party chair to step down. Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana lawmaker and current adviser to the Democratic National Party, said the Louisiana Democratic Party needs to go back to the drawing board.

CEDRIC RICHMOND: I just think that the state party has to get together and decide what direction it wants to go in. We have to inspire voters to show up.

RYAN: The path forward for Louisiana Democrats, he said, should include increasing registration and mobilization. Republicans are also poised to sweep most, if not all, other statewide seats and maintain a supermajority in the state's legislature. If no Democratic candidate wins a statewide election in mid-November, Republicans will have total control of state government, shifting this already red state even further to the right. For NPR News, I'm Molly Ryan in Baton Rouge.

(SOUNDBITE OF OUTKAST SONG, "LIBERATION (FEAT. CEELO GREEN, ERYKAH BADU AND BIG RUBE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Molly Ryan