A quiet realignment is taking place in this state among the movers and shakers who not only write the checks but pull the corporate and political strings.
The Louisiana monied elite is defying a 6-to-1 Democratic voter registration edge over Republicans, and pouring cash like bourbon at Mardi Gras into the campaign of W. Henson Moore, the Republican candidate for Senate.
Moore has raised a total campaign war chest of $2.9 million and is sitting on a cash balance of $1.6 million going into the last five months of the campaign. Here in Louisiana, as in other parts of the South, money is no longer a problem for viable GOP candidates; instead, there are signs that for Democrats, fund-raising may get tougher and tougher.
Since the 1964 nomination of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), the South has been a gold mine of contributions for Republican presidential candidates, but the money mostly flowed in the other partisan direction, to the Democrats, below that level. Now, the pattern is beginning to change. GOP statewide candidates and local GOP party structures are beginning to tap into the money lines.
Southern campaign money, however, is just one part of the mix of politics, class and income in the region. The growing emergence of a competitive Republican Party has changed the economic face of politics in the South in many ways:
*Well-to-do conservatives, including Democrats who controlled politics in many sections of the South, have moved in droves into the Republican Party.
*As primarily poor blacks, enfranchised in the 1960s, have moved into the Democratic Party, the division between the Republican and Democratic parties has become increasingly a division based on both race and income. The only substantial blocs of white voters to retain strong Democratic loyalties in the region are the poor and near-poor.
*While the southern Republican Party has become the home of the elite, the Democratic Party in most states has been unable to maintain its role as the populist voice of the South, representing the "have-nots" in the struggle against the "haves." Instead, in this poorest region of the country, conflicts over race and social issues have fractured potential populist alliances between poor and middle-class blacks and whites. At the same time, growing Democratic dependence on the local business establishment for campaign contributions has made it difficult for Democrats to adopt strong antibusiness populist stances.
Lee Atwater, a South Carolina native who helped map out President Reagan's campaign strategy in the South, argues that today there are three major voter groups in the South -- the business elite or so-called country-clubbers, the populists and the blacks. In this political equation, the country-clubbers, he says, are reliably Republican and blacks are reliably Democratic.
The result, according to Atwater's thesis, is that "the class war in the South continues, with the populists serving as the trump card."
Merle Black, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who recently completed a major book on the politics of the South, said: "The educated conservatives have realigned, and they are the ones who always ran things." Democratic by a 3-to-2 margin 18 years ago, this elite had become Republican by a 5-to-1 margin in 1984, according to Black.
Growing partisan competition in the South has resulted in strong class disparities between those who call themselves Democrats and Republicans as poor blacks and affluent whites move in opposite political directions.
In the South, the difference between the median income of whites and blacks is larger than in any other region of the country. More than half of the 2.16 million black families living below the poverty line in the United States are in the South.
In some areas, this has produced a form of political near-feudalism, reaching the most extreme levels in the Mississippi Delta. In many Delta counties, the vote in presidential and congressional races splits between Democratic blacks, whose main source of income is welfare, and Republican whites, whose largest source of income is rent from their land.
Among whites across the South, the rise of Republican Party allegiance has been closely tied to income. In 1956, southern whites from rich to poor were overwhelmingly Democratic, by margins of 2-to-1 or better.
By 1986, however, Democratic majorities remained only among poor and lower-middle class whites. Among middle-class whites, Republicans held a slight edge, while rich whites went from a 69-31 Democratic margin in 1956 to an 11-point GOP majority in 1984, according to surveys by National Election Studies. The rise of Republican partisan commitment in the South has been a revolution dominated by the affluent.
Here in Louisiana, Republican State Representative James Donelon says: "Polarization is taking place. We could now as easily call ourselves labor and conservatives as we do Democrats and Republicans . . . not talking race, I'm talking economic lines."
This growing split between the two parties in the South has major consequences for locally generated campaign contributions, almost all of which come from the affluent. Twenty years ago, a Republican Senate candidate would be considered a long shot at best, making it difficult for the campaign to raise funds. Today, in every contested race, the Republican Senate candidate has raised more cash than the Democrat.
In Louisiana, Moore has raised $1.8 million more than Rep. John B. Breaux, a conservative Democrat who just five years ago would have had no trouble raising money. In Florida, Sen. Paula Hawkins (R) has raised $3 million, according to Federal Election Commission records, $737,000 more than Democratic Governor Robert Graham. In the North Carolina Senate fight, both the winner of the Republican primary, Rep. James T. Broyhill ($1.22 million), and the loser, David Funderburk ($1.1 million), raised more than twice the amount raised by the Democratic nominee, former governor Terry Sanford ($350,130). In Georgia, Sen. Mack Mattingly (R) raised $1.96 million, almost twice the $1 million raised by Rep. Wyche Fowler Jr. (D). In Alabama, Sen. Jeremiah Denton (R) raised $1.47 million, $462,000 more than Rep. Richard C. Shelby (D).
Republican trends in the flow of money are showing up not only in state-wide and presidential contests, but also down at the grass-roots level of politics.
For nearly a generation, the South Carolina Democratic Party has depended on a committee of 100 made up of corporate leaders willing to kick in $500 or more annually. "You'd go to those meetings [15 years ago] and it damn near was South Carolina's finest. Every major bank was represented by either the chairman of the board or the president, all the major textiles . . . . Now, it's not the state's front-line business community. You just get a different crowd, the second and third level."
In direct contrast, South Carolina Republicans this year held a fund-raiser with Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III as the guest speaker. Selling tables of eight for $5,000, the state GOP raised $150,000. Warren Tompkins, the South Carolina GOP executive director, said, "In all the years, we'd never gotten a $5,000 contribution from any but one man," textile executive Roger Milliken.
Growing Republican financial muscle has major, and in many ways unanticipated, consequences for the substance of politics in the only region of the nation with a strong populist history, where the struggle of haves versus have-nots once characterized the Democratic South.
That populist tradition is nowhere stronger than in Louisiana, where in the 1930s Gov. Huey Long established a broader welfare state than that of the New Deal, and forced the political debate into a contest between the little guy and the corporations.
The recent rise of the Republican Party here is tied to sustained efforts to counter that Democratic populist tradition. One of the GOP's major weapons here, considered the single most important recent development in Louisiana politics, has been the emergence of a powerful business lobby, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
LABI superseded the AFL-CIO as the dominant force when it elected a majority of antilabor, probusiness members to the legislature during the 1970s, setting the stage for many of the striking Republican gains in the 1980s.
The new legislators provided fertile terrain for the GOP, which doubled its strength in the legislature from 12 to 25 over the past two years by persuading conservative Democrats to switch parties.
During the same time that the Republican Party in Louisiana and other southern states was strengthening its ties with business, it was linking itself with political reform movements.
Reform here in Louisiana, where Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards was recently found innocent of federal corruption charges, has taken on a strong Republican edge. The GOP, working in alliance with conservative Democrats, has linked reform with an attack on the welfare state. Reform has come to mean not only an attack on corruption, but also reform of such unique -- and expensive -- Louisiana state programs as a state charity hospital system and high state contributions to school lunches.
John J. Hainkel Jr., a former Democratic speaker of the Louisiana House, who recently switched to the GOP, said, "The southern populists in the '30s and '40s, that philosophy, you know, soak the rich -- the state gives everybody everything -- that was sort of a phenomenon that became intertwined with integration and segregation" and took on a new character.
The rise of the GOP in Louisiana "is a natural realignment," he said. "I don't think they have never not been class parties. With some exceptions, the Republicans have been the middle-income and upper-income voters. And the blue collar and poor have generally been more Democratic oriented."
This kind of polarization causes significant anxieties among Democrats who are dependent on the business community for the money to finance campaigns.
"We are in a holding action," Bill Hamilton, a Democratic pollster who specializes in southern states, particularly Florida, acknowledged. He said the only factor keeping money in the Democratic column is the fact that Democrats still have a hammerlock on most state and local offices in the South, except some governorships. "Power is still Democratic," he said. "If it ever breaks and goes the other way, I won't be in business."
"If we ever lose a significant part of the [southern] economic elite, financially we are in bad trouble, we have no party structure to fall back on," he said. "One of the things Republicans have to understand, they've got to crack one of the legislatures . . . . They've got to be able to block things somewhere. The big mules in Alabama, they don't give a damn who is governor. They want the lieutenant governor; he's the one who runs the Senate and appoints the Senate committees. That determines policy. Once Republicans are in control of that, it makes the economic elite move [to the GOP] even faster because it goes to their normal fiscally conservative philosophy."
In Louisiana and other states, however, some key players in the Democratic power structure -- just the people Hamilton is counting on to keep the money people in line -- are playing both sides of the street.
Lawrence Chehardy, a Democrat like his father, controls the politics of Jefferson Parish through the assessor's office. But unlike his father, who proudly claimed the populist mantle of Huey Long, Chehardy, a nominal Democrat, is political director of the Moore Republican Senate campaign:
"I think you would find I am as responsible, if not more responsible, for Republicans being elected in the parish than anybody. In all honesty, many of the people I am close to politically, as well as socially, most of them are Republicans."
Similarly, in Mississippi's Rankin County, Irl Dean Rhodes, Democratic courthouse boss of the county, routinely backs Republicans: "In my situation, I think I've got the blacks and the Republicans too."
In Tennessee, the economic elite has, in the main, become firmly Republican, producing three of the most successful national finance chairmen for the Republican National Committee -- Joe Rodgers, Ted Welch and David Wilson. But Democratic control of the state has forced GOP-leaning donors to give to Democrats. "To win [in Tennessee], a Republican needs Democratic votes, and a Democrat needs Republican money," said Frank Gorrell, former speaker of the state Senate.
The growing importance of money in elections is one reason why the emergence of two-party politics in the South has not meant the revival of a new class-based version of the old populist politics.
Don Fowler, Democratic National Committeeman from South Carolina, said that southern politics for generations was "characterized by continuing competition between the populists -- the rednecks -- and an elitist class of planters, doctors, lawyers and bankers."
The pool of poor and lower-middle-class voters has grown in recent years, as more of them have registered to vote, but this phenomenon has not produced a surge in populist politics -- and thus has not been a boon to the Democrats. "It [the growing enfranchisement of blacks and poor whites] didn't take control of government out of the hands of the elitists, the establishment," Fowler said.
In part, the reason is successful Democrats need the money of "haves" to get elected. One example is South Carolina Democratic Governor Richard W. Riley. He has, according to Fowler, "a distinctly liberal-moderate cut, but he has been very careful to make sure he retains links to some of the political, elite establishment, the economic and social elite."
One way to keep establishment support, according to Fowler, is to be against organized labor: "The modern-day version of civil rights is you can't be for labor unions. Riley has been steadfastly opposed to repeal of right to work laws and things like that."
The continued struggle between Republicans and Democrats for support, political and financial, from the establishment defies a 1949 prediction of V.O. Key, perhaps the greatest political analyst of the pre-civil rights South.
In the landmark book "Southern Politics," Key wrote: "Southern liberalism is not to be underestimated . . . . If the Negro is gradually assimilated into political life, the underlying Southern liberalism will undoubtedly be mightily strengthened."
In fact, southern liberalism -- like southern populism -- has not flourished, a development attributable in part to Democratic dependence on the monied establishment, but, perhaps more important, to the fact that blacks were not gradually assimilated into the political system, but brought in suddenly in great numbers. The racial turmoil of the '60s and '70s prevented the formation of an integrated alliance of have-nots. Observed Black: "It was an abrupt, bitter fight," setting the stage for the modern transformation of southern politics.
NEXT: A look ahead.