Republicans try to take House

Published 11:44 pm Saturday, November 17, 2007

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Republicans and Democrats remained locked in a tight battle Saturday in the contest for control of the state House of Representatives, with the GOP hoping to regain the chamber for the first time since the Reconstruction era.

Nearly a third of Louisiana’s legislative seats were on the ballot around the state, with 10 Senate seats and 36 House seats of the 144-member Legislature in runoff elections.

But much of the interest rested with the 16 House races that will decide whether the GOP can take control of the state House for the first time since 1878. Both Democrats and Republicans said they expect to have the House majority of 53 members.

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Republicans and Democrats each took five of the contested seats, according to unofficial results, giving Democrats an edge to keeping control of the House.

The Senate already is certain to maintain its Democratic majority when the new terms begin in January.

‘‘I think we hold it,’’ said Danny Ford, executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. ‘‘Looking at some of the races we’ve got, we’ll hold it. How big the margin is, that’s yet to be determined.’’

James Quinn, executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana, said, ‘‘These races are going to be extremely close all around the state. Out of the 16, we have a good chance to win a lot of them. I think we’re going to get to 53.’’

The races were a mix of term-limited legislators trying to nab new seats, former legislators hoping to regain seats, and incumbents fighting to keep their elected jobs.

At least one House member was ousted, state Rep. Carla Dartez, D-Morgan City, who angered civil rights leaders after she ended a conversation with the mother of the NAACP’s local president by saying, ‘‘Talk to you later, Buckwheat.’’

Buckwheat, a black child character in the ‘‘Little Rascals’’ comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, is considered a racist stereotype. Dartez said she regretted the comment, but local NAACP leaders asked voters to cast ballots for Dartez’s opponent, Republican Joe Harrison.

Dartez’s re-election bid already had been troubled because she was given a summons for improper lane usage after hitting a pedestrian with her vehicle. She failed a field sobriety test but passed a later Breathalyzer test. Meanwhile, Dartez’s husband was indicted for allegations that he hired illegal aliens to work for his construction business.

Dartez’s seat once had been considered a safe win for the Democrats as they sought to keep a majority in the House, but the incumbent representative lost to Republican Joe Harris, of Napoleonville.

No matter the outcome, both sides acknowledge any majority in the House will be slim. That’s different from the picture GOP officials had painted months ago when they talked of expecting term limits to help them seize a sizable majority in the House.

‘‘That was long, long before qualifying. Where we fell short from a Republican perspective was the fact we had five or six districts where we had really good Democrats qualify, and no one wanted to run against them,’’ said Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, chairman of the House Republican Legislative Delegation and a candidate to become speaker of the House in January.

Neither party will have enough of a majority in the House to be considered a mandate.

Each side will fall well short of the two-thirds vote needed to pass many of the biggest ticket items in the House, and with a Republican governor taking office next year and a Democratic Senate, both sides will have to work together, said Shreveport pollster Elliott Stonecipher.

Republicans will have made huge gains this election cycle, however. Four years ago, the GOP held just one statewide elected position, but when the new terms begin in 2008, Republicans will control at least five of the seven statewide elected posts — including the governor’s office, which Bobby Jindal won outright in the primary. A sixth, the attorney general’s job, will be determined Saturday in a runoff between a Republican and a Democrat.

‘‘I think Republicans are close enough that they can claim that they made huge gains and get whatever hype they want for the party,’’ Stonecipher said.

Among other notable legislative races:

—Rep. Jalila Jefferson, daughter of indicted U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, faces Rep. Cheryl Gray in a bid for a New Orleans-based Senate seat left open by term limits. Both women are Democrats. Jefferson trailed Gray in the primary.

—The race to fill the Baton Rouge-based Senate seat currently held by Democrat Cleo Fields has become a bitter feud between the two Democrats in the runoff: term-limited Rep. Yvonne Dorsey and lawyer Jason DeCuir. Fields, a longtime Democratic fixture, isn’t running because a court ruled that he was barred by term limits from seeking another term — a challenge Fields blames on DeCuir. Fields is backing Dorsey.

—Incumbent Sen. Ann Duplessis is competing to hold onto her New Orleans-based seat against the former senator she ousted, Jon Johnson. Both Duplessis and Johnson are Democrats. Duplessis is the only incumbent senator seeking re-election who was forced into a runoff.

—The race to fill an open Shreveport-based Senate seat became a fierce battle between two Republicans: former Rep. Buddy Shaw and term-limited Rep. Billy Montgomery, who switched parties late last year and has been accused of changing parties only because he was seeking the Senate seat in the heavily GOP district.

—Former House member and former Democrat Raymond ‘‘LaLa’’ LaLonde, R-Carencro, lost his bid for a House seat representing parts of Lafayette, St. Martin and St. Landry parishes. Instead, the winner was Bobby Badon, a Democrat who served two terms on the Carencro City Council.