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After Katrina, La. Democrats suffering

BATON ROUGE, La. --Democrats seeking encouragement about the party's post-Katrina future in Louisiana found nothing to celebrate in the latest round of elections.

They couldn't find a candidate to run for one of the statewide offices on the Sept. 30 ballot. And their contender for the other post formally dropped out of the November runoff this week, saying he wasn't sure he could rally enough dollars or votes.

Even before Hurricane Katrina hit last year, the Louisiana Democratic Party was struggling. In 2004, for example, voters overwhelmingly backed President Bush for re-election and selected their first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction.

Katrina's floods then scattered thousands of residents from New Orleans, normally a Democratic stronghold.

"Welcome to post-Katrina electoral politics," said Silas Lee, a New Orleans-based political analyst. "Displacement is going to be a factor. How important that will be remains a big question."

An accurate answer may be a year away. Analysts say it's too soon to determine if the Sept. 30 elections to fill unexpired terms for secretary of state and insurance commissioner are part of a larger Republican trend. Next year, all statewide posts, including governor, are up for grabs, along with the entire Legislature.

A recent survey conducted for the Louisiana Recovery Authority indicated fewer than 190,000 people live in New Orleans, less than half its pre-Katrina population. Many of the displaced are black voters, who have overwhelmingly voted for Democrats.

"The Democrats are severely challenged because those votes are missing," said Elliott Stonecipher, a north Louisiana-based demographic and political analyst. "New Orleans blacks were an incredible treasure trove of votes for the party."

Lee said prominent incumbent Democrats, such as Gov. Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu -- up for re-election in 2008 -- will have to calculate how thoroughly Katrina has altered their political bases.

The latest dose of bad news for the party came Wednesday when Democratic state Sen. Francis Heitmeier dropped out of the Nov. 7 runoff against GOP state Sen. Jay Dardenne in the race to fill the unexpired term of Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, a Republican who died in office.

Dardenne had finished first in the primary statewide while Heitmeier barely carried New Orleans. Heitmeier said the displacement of his southern Louisiana voting base made it difficult for him to win.

In the insurance commissioner's race, open after a Democrat resigned, Democrats couldn't find a candidate to run, leaving two Republicans to battle for the job. Former state Rep. Jim Donelon came out on top.

Louisiana Democratic Party spokeswoman Julie Vezinot acknowledged the party's difficulty in recruiting for the September race. "We're looking forward to recruiting strong Democrats for next year," she said.

Turnout was estimated at less than 23 percent of 2.9 million registered voters, the lowest in a statewide election in at least a decade. Dardenne said it was too early to find a permanent trend with such turnout.

But, he added, "There is no question that shifting demographics in the New Orleans area are going to have an impact in future statewide elections."

National Democrats say they haven't given up on the South, or Louisiana, and have a strategy to gain grass-roots support in every state. Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Amaya Smith said the party is working with Louisiana officials to provide a strong base for Democratic candidates.

The Republican Party of Louisiana, however, was quick to issue a statement claiming the elections marked an end to Democratic dominance in statewide offices.

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