On the heels of news that Republican majority whip Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana may (or may not) have addressed a white nationalist group founded by David Duke, Louisiana political reporter Jeremy Alford did his best to smear today's Republican Party by linking it to the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in his report for Thursday's New York Times, "Much of David Duke’s ’91 Campaign Is Now in Louisiana Mainstream."
Guilt by association is popular in the media when yoking fringe right-wing figures to the Republican Party, though Democrats never have to worry. Bill Ayers, the Weather Underground figure (and Obama pal) who never apologized for the group's terrorist acts, is never portrayed as a stumbling block for Obama, and Democrats can publicly embrace the racially inflammatory Al Sharpton (a frequent White House guest) without penalty.
Alford delved into ancient history to explain how the Duke phenomenon has made Louisiana more Republican since the early '90s (without mentioning that every other Deep South state has made the same shift without Duke).
David Duke seems a figure from the past, the former Klansman and white supremacist who two decades ago was almost elected Louisiana governor.
But this week when Representative Steve Scalise, the third-ranking House Republican leader, found himself trying to explain why he accepted a speaking engagement offered by a key aide to Mr. Duke in 2002, it was a reminder of the awkward dance and hard choices that Republicans in Louisiana faced in the 1990s when Mr. Duke was one of the most charismatic politicians in the state.
In his 1991 campaign for governor against Edwin W. Edwards, Mr. Duke largely avoided explicitly racial campaigning, appealed to the frustrations and resentments of white voters and won more than 60 percent of the white vote while losing in a runoff election. Two decades later, much of his campaign has merged with the political mainstream here, and rather than a bad memory from the past, Mr. Duke remains a window into some of the murkier currents in the state’s politics where Republicans have sought and eventually won Mr. Duke’s voters, while turning their back on him.
Echoing what mainstream Republicans did during the 1991 race for governor and since then, Mr. Scalise quickly distanced himself from Mr. Duke. Mr. Scalise said he only vaguely recalled his speech, had no forewarning it was a white nationalist group and would have avoided the meeting had he known.
Still, Roy Fletcher, a Baton Rouge-based political consultant who has managed campaigns for Republicans like former Gov. Mike Foster and Senator John McCain, said Mr. Duke may have become a toxic political personality, but he foreshadowed the state’s coming political and ideological shift.
Louisiana, like most of the South, has become solidly Republican in a way it was not then, and race remains a fluid issue. The current governor, Bobby Jindal, is a conservative Republican of Indian descent whom Mr. Scalise supported.
Of course, the Tea Party is linked to Duke.
Instead, he focused on anti-big government and anti-tax mantras that preceded the Tea Party movement. His decision to run to the right of the field is now a common maneuver in Louisiana’s open primary system.
Mr. Duke supported forcing welfare recipients to take birth control. Now there are near-perennial attempts by members of the Louisiana Legislature to give welfare recipients drug tests.
After being elected to the state House of Representatives in 1989, Mr. Duke filed nine bills, including measures implementing stricter guidelines for residents of public housing, repealing affirmative action programs and eliminating minority set-asides.
By the way, among the policy stands Duke ran for president on in 1992 was bringing the troops home from overseas. He also blamed free trade for U.S. unemployment and called for tariffs on overseas goods. Both have been popular stances on the left. But Alford skipped those.
Jason Doré, the executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, said Mr. Duke put it in the awkward position of campaigning for Mr. Edwards, who was later indicted on federal racketeering charges. The slogan, “Vote For the Crook: It’s Important,” caught on like wildfire in 1991. But he rejected the notion that Mr. Duke was somehow the architect of the state’s modern conservative politics.
Eventually Alford got to an alternative explanation for the Republican rise in the state, thought even it was racially tinged:
Louisiana political experts say the demography of the state’s electorate has played as much of a role, if not larger, as Mr. Duke’s policy ideas in turning Louisiana solidly Republican. Pollster and data analyst John M. Couvillon, the president of JMC Enterprises of Louisiana, said a polarization has taken place to create a black-majority Democratic Party and a solidly white Republican Party.
He said the recent open primary election between the incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, and Congressman Bill Cassidy, a Republican who won the seat, is proof enough. Landrieu carried only 18 percent of the white vote and Cassidy captured just 5 percent of the black vote, Mr. Couvillon said.
In concert with the 225,000 white Democrats who have left the party over the past 10 years, he said it has become very difficult for Democrats to win statewide in Louisiana without significant white support.
Still, he said, Republicans cannot rely on being an all-white party. “That’s the politics of division, which David Duke was good at it,” Mr. Couvillon said, “but it would be a foolish strategy if Louisiana Republicans were to espouse those same principles David Duke did. That’s a legacy best left behind.”