Four years ago, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, spent an afternoon talking with the students and faculty of Louisiana College, a tiny school built on the northern side of the Red River in Pineville and a place that had recently attracted national headlines for its militant allegiance to the Southern Baptist orthodoxy. Students could be scolded for espousing “neo-Calvinism;” professors could be fired if they were spotted drinking alcohol in public.
Gingrich, who had finished first in both South Carolina and his home state of Georgia and an unexpectedly strong second in Florida, was fresh off of two disappointing defeats to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in Alabama and Mississippi, states that he had considered must-wins. Speaker Gingrich knew that the only way he could revive his campaign prospects was with a decisive victory in Louisiana.
Gingrich crisscrossed the state, hosting town halls in Ruston, Pineville, and New Orleans and repeating the same talking points that had lifted him to victory in South Carolina. Only four months prior, in November of 2011, Gingrich had held a dominant lead in Louisiana, 31 percent to Mitt Romney’s 23 percent; Rick Santorum wasn’t even on the radar.
At that campaign event at Louisiana College only days before the primary, Gingrich pledged to reduce the price of gasoline to $2.50 a gallon. “Wouldn’t you rather be in the situation instead of paying royalties to Saudi government, the royalties would be paid to American government and Louisiana state government?” he asked the audience. “Don’t you want to reduce your dependence on oil and not increase your dependence?”
Gingrich, of course, ultimately lost the Louisiana primary to Rick Santorum, whose victory was largely attributable to his appeal among evangelicals. The Gingrich campaign and any aspiration Newt Gingrich ever had for the White House ended that day in Louisiana.
Today, with gasoline at $1.50 a gallon and the state’s economy reeling from the resulting reductions in revenue, it is impossible to imagine any presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat, hoping to win Louisiana by pledging to cut gas prices.
But last June, more than 4,500 people traveled to the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner to hear a self-avowed Democratic Socialist deliver an even more ambitious set of plans in his bid for the presidency: In a state in which higher public education has been decimated, scholarship programs are imperiled, and entire campuses are being considered for closure, Bernie Sanders announced his goal of making certain that public colleges and universities would be tuition-free. In a state that only recently is poised to reluctantly accept the billions in federal monies required to expand Medicaid, Sen. Sanders vowed to ensure a single-payer health care system.
The audience was likely the largest ever at a political rally at the Pontchartrain Center, the very same venue that former KKK grand wizard, David Duke, conceded his defeat in the 1992 presidential campaign and former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in 2015, announced the launch of his own campaign for the White House. Bernie packed the place; Duke and Jindal, two well-known Louisiana Republicans separated by an entire generation, didn’t even come close.
In January, however, a bombastic billionaire from New York shattered the records. At an event in downtown Baton Rouge, more than 10,000 people showed up to listen to a wild and rambling speech by the current Republican front runner, Donald J. Trump.
“I went to the Trump rally, and I’m leaning toward supporting him,” my neighbor, a registered Democrat who had recently voted for Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards, reported back to me, “but I was bothered by how many people in the audience looked like Klansmen.” He was joking. Sort of. “It’s like they bused in every white person from rural Livingston Parish,” he said.
Trump and Sanders are both populists, and though, on most issues, they are diametrically opposed, their receptions in Louisiana are reminders that populism still endures in the Gret Stet; the ghost of Huey P. Long continues to haunt us.
Last week Donald Trump picked up an unwelcome supporter from another ghost of Louisiana’s past.
David Duke, from his home studio in Mandeville, told listeners of his radio show: “Voting against Donald Trump at this point is really treason to your [white] heritage.” He implored them to action. “When this show’s over, go out, call the Republican Party,” he said, “but call Donald Trump’s headquarters, volunteer. They’re screaming for volunteers. Go in there, you’re gonna meet people who are going to have the same kind of mindset that you have.”
Although his influence and celebrity have waned, it is worth noting that 25 years ago, Duke, a Republican, earned 55 percent of white voters in a run-off election for Louisiana governor; a year before, in 1990, he captured 60 percent of white voters in a campaign for U.S. Senate. In Louisiana, there are still hundreds of thousands of voters who once cast their votes for the former Klansman. Trump’s relentless criticism of illegal immigrants from Mexico, his proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country, his absurd implications about the first African-American President’s birth certificate and religious faith, and his cleverly coded theme, “Make America Great Again,” all appeal to those who harbor racist resentment and nativist beliefs in their own inherent superiority. And however shameful it may be or difficult it is to admit, in Louisiana, the frequency of a dog whistle is audible to the human ear.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont appeals to a completely different aspect of Louisiana’s populist tradition. He is, in many ways, channeling the message of the Kingfish, Huey P. Long, a man who vowed to take on Standard Oil with the same vigor and righteous indignation in which Sanders employs against Wall Street. Huey P. Long audaciously promised to provide free textbooks to every school child in the state, a promise he kept; Sanders promises to provide a free college education. After eight years of Gov. Bobby Jindal, it’s no surprise that some Louisianians, particularly young people, have an appetite for a leader who champions the restoration of government’s role in promoting and funding the common social good and advancing the economic interests of the working middle class, even if he is saddled by the dirty word of “socialist.”
Thus far, there have been very few polls about the Louisiana Republican presidential primary (I’ll get to the polls about the Louisiana Democratic presidential primary later). One of them, from last September, had Ben Carson ahead. Obviously, the map has changed. It happens. Just ask Newt Gingrich.
Both Trump and Sanders have defied all expectations, though only Trump, at this point, seems primed to win his party’s primary in Louisiana. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed Marco Rubio, who is quickly emerging as the consensus establishment candidate. Jindal’s endorsement is unlikely to make a difference in Louisiana, though; he recently left office as the least popular governor in the state’s history and saddled the state with a $2.9 billion deficit that lawmakers are now scrambling to plug. Ben Carson, the former frontrunner in Louisiana, may still be in the mix, but the good doctor’s campaign is on life support. John Kasich flew down to New Orleans this week, where he was joined with about 150 well-intentioned political rubberneckers. He too is unlikely to break into double digits.
Ted Cruz, the senator representing our neighbors in Texas, is the only legitimate threat to a Trump victory in Louisiana. Cruz is actively courting evangelical voters, a key to Bobby Jindal’s landslide victories in 2007 and 2011. He has assembled a team of well-known Louisiana politicos; the former manager of Scott Angelle’s gubernatorial campaign is now the state director of Cruz’s SuperPAC; the publisher of a popular Louisiana conservative blog is (perhaps suspiciously) a Cruz supporter. James Carville, Louisiana’s most famous Democratic political pundit, and his wife Mary Matalin, Louisiana’s most famous Republican political pundit, recently hosted a reception for Cruz in their home in New Orleans, along with a who’s who of the state’s Republican establishment.
A substantial Cruz victory in his home state of Texas may provide him with the spillover momentum needed to win over his neighbors in Louisiana, but it’s still an enormous long shot. Donald Trump seems all but certain to carry Louisiana, yet another state in which no one in the Republican Party establishment wants anything to do with him. David Duke, to be clear, would have no right to any claim on a Trump win; he’s merely hitching his white wagon to The Donald’s bright red star. But if Trump wins in Louisiana, which he likely will, we should probably question Republican voters’ appetite for divisive, proto-nationalist, ethnocentric hyperbole masquerading as patriotism.
On the other side of the aisle, Bernie Sanders, the ascendant Democratic-Socialist who once commanded an audience of thousands in Kenner, will almost certainly fall significantly short in the Louisiana Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton. Sec. Clinton has spent a lifetime cultivating relationships with Democrats in Louisiana, particularly during her time as First Lady of Arkansas and First Lady of the United States. To be sure, she lost the 2008 Louisiana Democratic primary to then-Sen. Barack Obama by double digits, largely because she dramatically underperformed among African-American voters. This time, though, after serving more than four years as President Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has solidified her support among African-American primary voters and the state’s Democratic establishment. According to the most recent poll, conducted earlier this month, Clinton is 31 points ahead of Sanders in Louisiana.
Sanders’ outspoken fans and supporters in Louisiana (and there are more than a few of them, as evidenced by his rally) won’t want to hear this, but Democrats in this state, for better or worse, prefer concrete, middle-of-the-road solutions over abstract, ideological revolutions. That may sound cruel, but in a state grappling with how to merely keep open the doors of its public universities and colleges and its few remaining public hospitals in the face of an unprecedented budget deficit and a legislature dominated by intransigent opponents of any and all taxation, the notion of somehow guaranteeing free college education and free health care to all, however wonderful that would be, seems naive, out-of-touch, and completely detached from fundamental political reality. In a state whose environment has been pillaged and whose profits have been pilfered by the excesses of the oil and gas industry, in a petrochemical state that relies on high prices for dirty energy like an addict relies on his drug dealer, it’s difficult to blame all that ails us on the Big Banks of Wall Street, when we know that much of the harm and much of the gamesmanship is being plotted out in high-rise buildings off of Louisiana Street in Houston, Texas. If Huey P. Long were alive today, he could pick up right where he left off.
Sen. Sanders could refine his message to Louisiana voters, but it’s likely too late.
With early voting already underway and considering the inevitability of victories for her in South Carolina and a slew of states on Super Tuesday, it appears certain that a Clinton will win Louisiana for the first time in two decades.
If in fact this holds up, and if both Trump and Clinton become the nominees of their respective political parties, when they return to Louisiana to ask for votes in November, there is one question both of them are uniquely suited to answer, a question that has plagued and confounded Louisianians since the day Huey P. Long died of a gunshot wound in a Baton Rouge hospital: “If you were the Kingfish, where would you have hidden the Deduct Box?”