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How to Succeed as a Front-Runner

Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry is the clear favorite to succeed Gov. John Bel Edwards, but will he prevail? Meanwhile, there seems to be no end to redistricting fights as prominent cases continue in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico and New York.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (Facebook)
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How to Succeed as a Front-Runner: Louisiana is the only state in the Deep South with a Democratic governor. That’s about to change. Gov. John Bel Edwards is term-limited and Jeff Landry, the Republican attorney general, is the clear favorite to succeed him. At this point – with early voting starting on Friday – the biggest question is not whether Landry will ultimately prevail, but whether he can win outright by taking a majority of the votes in the Oct. 14 primary and thus avoid a November runoff.

That still seems unlikely. State Rep. Richard Nelson dropped out last week, endorsing Landry, but there’s still a big field of candidates with likely just enough support to deny Landry a first-round victory. But he’s clearly in a dominant position. A Gray Television poll released last week showed Landry winning support from 40 percent of voters. That’s well short of a majority, but he held a 16 percentage-point lead over Democrat Shawn Wilson, with all the other Republicans registering only in the single digits. (In Louisiana, all candidates appear together on the primary ballot, with the top two finishers heading to the general election, regardless of party, assuming no one wins a majority.)

At this point, there’s a bandwagon effect, with lobbyists and other donors wanting to get right with Landry before he takes over the governor’s office. “None of the other Republican candidates ever took off,” says John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster. “Now you have Republicans and independents moving to him steadily.”

Landry, who has the support of former President Donald Trump, has been positioning himself for the campaign for years. Along with other Republican attorneys general, he’s filed multiple lawsuits against the Biden administration, including one last month seeking to block the administration from limiting oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico. He won a notable victory earlier this month when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the administration had likely illegally “coerced” and interfered with social media companies. (Landry was a lead litigant on the case, along with Missouri AG Andrew Bailey.)

Finding high-profile issues over which to sue Gov. Edwards has also been a Landry staple. “Especially if we're talking about social issues, he was in a position to where he could put himself front and center on a certain side of those issues,” says Jeffrey Sadow, a political scientist at Louisiana State University’s Shreveport campus.

Landry has raised far more money than his rivals – more than $10 million. Heading into the campaign’s final month, he had $5 million more left in the bank than any other contender. His total of $6.7 million cash on hand was seven times as much as Wilson’s $700,000. Landry hasn’t relied solely on advertising to press his case, instead making the rounds among grass-roots GOP voters and activists. He’s a disciplined candidate, staying on message and taking care not to offend any significant constituency within the party.

Wilson, a former state transportation and development secretary, will almost certainly be the last man standing against Landry in November. But Wilson not only lacks money but name recognition, with most voters – including most Democrats – not having enough knowledge about him to have formed any impression. Trump carried Louisiana by nearly 20 percentage points in 2020 and Wilson will not enjoy the special set of circumstances – GOP in-fighting and a nominee tarnished by a serious personal scandal – that led to Edwards’ initial win eight years ago.

It would be a bit premature for Landry to start measuring the curtains, but he can certainly start making plans. “He's just a good politician,” Sadow says. “He took advantage of the opportunities that were presented to him.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (TNS)
No End to Redistricting Fights: The Supreme Court reiterating its decision on Tuesday that Alabama’s congressional map is unacceptable was the most high-profile recent ruling on redistricting, but it’s far from the only one. There are always lots of lawsuits surrounding redistricting, with cases sometimes stretching until the very end of the decade. At this point in the current cycle, however, legal activity is particularly high, with prominent cases challenging congressional and/or legislative maps pending in states including Florida, Kentucky, New Mexico and New York.

There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, Census data that are the underpinning of the redistricting process came in late, due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, it’s easier than ever to draw maps, allowing litigants to use formulas that “prove” official maps are illegal. Many challenges were not fully adjudicated in time for last year’s elections, but obviously still matter for 2024 and beyond.

Lawmakers in some states seem to be playing a game of “go ahead and make me,” sidestepping rulings in ways that dare courts to act (which, of course, translates into more court activity). The Supreme Court’s increased application of the Purcell principle – a vague standard that holds maps and other election rules should not be changed too close to Election Day – has helped create a backlog of cases that are still playing out, says Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a Harvard law professor. Various courts ruled that congressional maps in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Ohio were illegal partisan or racial gerrymanders, yet they were used last November anyway.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled that Alabama’s congressional map violated the Voting Rights Act. The following month, Alabama lawmakers violated clear directions to assure adequate representation for Black voters. A three-judge panel rejected the Legislature’s new map earlier this month, with a special master presenting the court with three alternative maps on Monday. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court rejected Alabama’s attempt to use last year’s map again in 2024.

Republican legislators in North Carolina did not get their wish to be able to draw congressional maps without review by state courts, with the Supreme Court rejecting the so-called independent state legislature theory in June. Despite their defeat at the Supreme Court, North Carolina Republicans have been given the green light for a partisan gerrymander by the state Supreme Court, thanks to a new partisan majority on the court itself that rejected a prior ruling that blocked a congressional map.

Last year, Ohio lawmakers repeatedly thumbed their noses at state Supreme Court rulings that found the congressional map violated prohibitions against partisan gerrymanders, ignoring orders to start over. Their delaying tactics allowed Republicans to preserve a congressional map that heavily favored their side. Thanks to the defeat of a Democratic justice last year, that map has now won the court’s blessing, with the new majority ruling earlier this month that the map is in fact fine and dandy. Ohio Republicans and Democrats agreed Tuesday on new legislative maps for the rest of the decade that should preserve sizable GOP majorities.

Wisconsin Democrats are hoping that the balance of power on the state Supreme Court swinging over to their side, thanks to an April election, will lead to rulings making legislative maps more favorable for them. In New York, the state’s top court ruled that a congressional map produced by the Democratic-controlled Legislature was excessively partisan. Democrats there are now arguing that the ruling only applied to 2022 and that they should in essence get a do-over, betting they can win thanks to a change in justices. The court will hear arguments in November.

“There are 11 Republicans and 15 Democrats (in the state’s congressional delegation) and the Democratic map was going to make it 22-4,” says Shawn Donahue, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo. “I don’t know if they’ll try to push their advantage that hard, but five or six seats potentially flipping with a more Democrat-friendly map would be enough to change control of the House.”

Not surprisingly, then, legal fights over redistricting come down to what all fights about redistricting are about. Namely, power. With power in Washington potentially coming down the arcs of a few lines on a map, it’s no wonder that the parties are continuing their battles well after the shape of districts have been settled.

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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