By Ben Baumgardner, Catherine Hunt, Lara Nicholson and Katie Peppo, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — While the gubernatorial campaign has been the center of attention, several legislative races in Louisiana are gaining momentum as the October 12 primary approaches.
Republicans are within striking distance of a supermajority – holding at least two-thirds of the seats — in each chamber of the state Legislature. Getting there, however, could require beating incumbents, a rare accomplishment in Louisiana elections.
Incumbent legislators have won over 90% of their elections during the past two decades, according to LSU Public Policy Research Lab Director Dr. Michael Henderson. Typically, incumbents leave office only when they reach their term limit or choose to resign.
On the other hand, legislative elections are increasingly decided on a partisan basis. Republicans now hold seats in 85 of the 101 Louisiana House and Senate districts that President Donald Trump carried in 2016, while Democrats hold 41of the 43 House and Senate districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried.
Republicans are challenging four of the six Democratic or independent incumbents in districts Trump carried. By contrast, Republicans are challenging only three of the 26 incumbent Democrats in districts Clinton carried.
So the races in which Republicans are challenging Democratic incumbents pit partisanship versus incumbency in what promise to be interesting tests of which means more to voters now.
Not surprisingly, then, the incumbents in these races are downplaying their party affiliations.
In Trump-friendly northwest Louisiana, incumbent Sen. John Milkovich, D-Shreveport, faces a strong Republican challenge in Senate District 38 from businessman Barry Milligan.
“Politicians, PACs and special interests are spending thousands of dollars against us because I am independent,” said Milkovich, one of the most conservative Democrats in the Legislature. “I didn’t take orders from them, and I didn’t ask permission from them on how to vote.”
Milligan has endorsements from prominent Republicans like U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy. His $142,000 in total contributions also gives him a significant financial advantage over Milkovich’s $48,355.
Milkovich highlights his own brand of conservatism as the right fit for the district. If re-elected, he said, he would continue fighting common-core education programs, abortion and higher taxes.
“Common core is a corrupt form of big government control of what happens in the classroom,” Milkovich said, adding that it was part of a broader effort to replace Louisiana’s Christian values with more secular ones.
As a pro-life Democrat, Milkovich introduced a “heartbeat bill” during the 2019 legislative session that prohibits abortions once a heartbeat is detected. The bill, which has no exceptions for rape or incest, was signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.
Although Milligan and Milkovich share many conservative beliefs, several PACs—mainly the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority—want to see Milkovich out.
The committee has endorsed 10 Senate candidates, including Milligan, to try to turn seven seats held by Democrats into seats held by more conservative lawmakers.
On the opposite side of the state, incumbent Democrat Malinda White of Bogalusa is defending her seat in the 75th House District in St. Tammany and Washington parishes against Republican challenger Phillipp Bedwell.
“This election is just as important as every election,” White said. “Every vote counts.”
The only PAC listed in Bedwell’s finance report is SouthPAC, a major player in the political arena, which contributed the maximum of $5,000.
The Bedwell campaign’s Facebook page touts all the endorsements he has received from Republican groups in the district, but many of those groups are offering endorsements without monetary help.
Groups in District 75 endorsing Bedwell include the Washington Republican Executive Committee and the St. Tammany Republican Party. Statewide groups like LAGOP Executive Committee and Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority also are endorsing his campaign.
Bedwell is counting on his pro-limited government, pro-Second Amendment, pro-life, anti-tax message to help him break the tradition of incumbency being too great a barrier for political newcomers.
One hundred and thirty miles to the west, in House District 18, Democratic incumbent Jeremy LaCombe of Livonia faces Republican challenger Brandon Bergeron, who formerly served on the Pointe Coupee School Board.
Democrats have held this seat for decades. Republicans did not even field a candidate from 1995 until a special election that LaCombe won earlier this year with 69% of the vote.
Nonetheless, the district seems to be Republican-friendly: President Donald Trump won it in 2016 by 18 percentage points.
Bergeron has the endorsement of the state Republican party but has managed to raise only $2,225. LaCombe, in contrast, has raised $21,020, including support from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry EastPAC.
“My opposition is a really good guy, and the 18th district has always been occupied by the Democratic Party,” said Bergeron. “But being a conservative Republican, I would like to bring those values that I have personally to the state Legislature.”
LaCombe has a conservative record of his own, however. As a pro-life Democrat, he voted in favor of the “heartbeat” bill to restrict abortion access. Unlike many Democrats, he also voted for a tort reform bill that was meant to lower car insurance premiums by giving accident victims less in damages.
Bergeron said he is running this campaign just like he ran for the School Board, through canvassing and personal interactions. He and his team knock on 400 doors a week, hoping to reach 30% of the district’s voters.
“When you shake hands with people and see them eye-to-eye, you’re working for it,” he said, “especially in this heat.”
Republicans also are challenging the House’s lone independent incumbent seeking reelection in Trump country. Rep. Roy Adams of Jackson is trying to fend off two Republican challengers, Bradley Behrnes and Johnny Arceneaux, in the 62nd House District on the northern side of Baton Rouge.
For the time being, the Republican Party is waiting on the sideline given that it has two candidates in the primary. The statewide general election is scheduled for November 1.