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Could Julia Letlow Win In A Majority-Black District?

The Supreme Court’s recent Milligan decision affirmed an order for Alabama to draw a second majority-Black district. It also breathed life into a prominent Louisiana redistricting case: Ardoin v. Robinson. Last year, a district judge ruled that the state’s gerrymandered congressional map violated the VRA and ordered the creation of a district Black enough to avoid any vote dilution issues. SCOTUS recently vacated a stay on lower court proceedings in that case, and the state’s appeal is currently being heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

While we aren’t going to speculate on the outcome of any specific litigation, we do believe there is a good chance that Louisiana will end up with a second majority-minority district this decade. That would result in a Biden-won 5th district. To get a sense of how popular Republican Rep. Julia Letlow could win reelection under such a redraw, we drew a hypothetical VRA-compliant district and conducted a historical analysis of its racial and partisan turnout patterns. 

As you might notice, we did not draw an overwhelmingly Democratic seat by any means. Our goal was simple: we wanted to simulate a favorable, VRA-compliant district that the Republican legislature might realistically approve. Had we been more aggressive, Letlow would have virtually no shot at reelection. While she would still be an underdog on our map, it provides enough breathing room for us to lay out prerequisites for a hypothetical victory. 

Let’s first review the geography of our 5th. We avoided the design of the “Z”-shaped 4th district that SCOTUS struck down in the 1990s, instead opting for the seat to run south along the Mississippi and east into the Florida parishes. In terms of cities, the 5th is anchored in the north by Monroe, in the west by Opelousas, and in the south by Baton Rouge – the state capital and the home of LSU. Our district clocks in at Biden +8 and is majority-Black by citizen voting-age population (CVAP).

Both Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton carried this iteration of the 5th comfortably against Donald Trump, proving just how hard it is for Republicans to win majority-Black seats, even semi-competitive ones, in the racially-polarized south. In 2020, GOP Senator Bill Cassidy won a 48% plurality in the seat. An equivalent result in a House race would have gone to a runoff. GOP Senator John Kennedy, on the other hand, won the seat outright, but his performance had more to do with an overcrowded Democratic jungle primary field and low minority turnout than any significant persuasion of Black voters.

At the end of the day, these numbers reinforce an important point: there is little precedent for Republicans winning majority-Black House seats, especially in the Deep South, but it’s not impossible. Mississippi’s Webb Franklin was one rare example from the 1980s. Though she would still start as an underdog, we think Letlow would have a more plausible path to victory in a 5th district similar to the one we drew than conventional wisdom suggests.

Letlow’s Path to Victory

The biggest single factor that could play to Letlow’s advantage in 2024 is differential turnout. Because of the South’s long history of extreme racial polarization, we emphasized race as a close proxy for political preference in our analysis. We also divided the district’s parishes into groups to account for differences in Black and white turnout patterns between urban and rural areas.

We found that Black voters are twice as likely to undervote as white voters in federal races in the 5th district. In other words, the undervote among Democrats in the precincts with the highest Black populations was much stronger than that among Republicans in the whitest precincts. On paper, this turnout differential suggests that Letlow would not need to win over as many Black crossover voters to win reelection as the district demographics suggest.

White voters in this version of the 5th district enjoy a turnout advantage ranging from 5 points in East Baton Rouge Parish to upwards of 13 points in the northern rural parishes. This makes for an electorate that is much whiter than what the topline population indicates. For example, projecting 2024 turnout in our majority-Black 5th using an average of 2016 and 2020 turnout rates for white and Black voters suggests that the electorate would actually be 53% white, moving the district’s implied baseline partisanship a few points to the right. 

Our estimates show that Trump won an average of 82% of white voters in our 5th district between 2016 and 2020. That suggests that the white electorate in the 5th is more Republican than it is statewide – likely a function of racial polarization. Assuming Letlow hits Trump’s benchmark, she would then be able to withstand a Democrat winning 86% of the Black vote. In such a case, she would have to win 14% of the Black vote to win re-election. That’s plausible, but unlikely nonetheless.

Despite Letlow’s Path, Democrats Would Remain Favored

Letlow could win, as we’ve explained, but she would not be favored in a district like ours. For one, her R+10 WAR from 2022 overstates, to a certain extent, how strong of a candidate she really is. It isn’t wise to assume that Letlow would overperform extraordinarily in a competitive majority-Black seat attracting significant outside investment just because she did so in a safe district against a series of weak Democratic challengers last year. Weak jungle primary opposition has also been found to artificially inflate candidate strength. Letlow may be popular, but we do not think she’s invincible. 

As long as the Black share of the electorate increases at the same rate as the white share does, Democrats would be clear favorites to win any similar majority-Black 5th district. Baton Rouge is perhaps Letlow’s biggest hurdle. The coterminous presidential election could provide a major boost to Black turnout there, making it very difficult for her to win. Even if the race goes to a runoff, where the turnout differential benefitted Republicans in 2016, the partisanship of the district and comparable drops in white turnout would likely keep the Democrats favored.

If Baton Rouge’s black voters increased their turnout by 10%, for example, our analysis suggests Letlow would only be able to afford a 66-point loss there instead of a the estimated 72 points that she could otherwise withstand.

If our hypothetical 5th district were adopted, we’d rate it Leans Democratic. Letlow does have a path to victory if she meets all the benchmarks we’ve mentioned above, but she would still be an underdog against any viable Democrat given the district characteristics. At the end of the day, Republicans do not have a well-established track record of winning competitive majority-Black seats. Even in our racially-polarized 5th district, with a majority-white electorate, victory would require an incredible performance among white voters on top of Black crossover votes.

Editor’s Note: The wording in the introductory paragraph of this article was modified on August 5th at 1:37 ET to more accurately reflect the Milligan decision.

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