Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Shawn Wilson (D) is facing a challenging path to election amid warning signs that Democrats are not doing enough to motivate their base, including Black voters.
More than a dozen candidates are running to replace term-limited Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), with six main contenders emerging from the pack. Louisiana uses an open primary system where all contenders are listed under one ballot; if no candidate receives more than half of the vote, the two top vote-getters head to a runoff.
Wilson, a former state Transportation secretary, is expected to qualify during the Saturday primary for a November runoff election with leading Republican candidate Jeff Landry.
But experts are pointing to weaker polling among Black voters and limited coordination between the campaign and state party as among some of the causes for concern for Democrats in the gubernatorial race.
“Democratic turnout has been weak,” said Louisiana-based pollster John Couvillon.
“Normally, early voting tends to favor Democrats, and Republicans as of Saturday night cumulatively have a plus-5 lead,” added Couvillon, who typically works with Republicans.
Though fewer ballots for early voting have been cast overall this election cycle compared to 2019, more Republicans than Democrats have voted so far, according to data from the Louisiana secretary of State’s office.
Black voters make up a critical base of Democrats’ voting bloc in the state. But early voting numbers show Black turnout has dropped 8 percent compared to the 2019 primary. White voter turnout also declined 12 percent.
Tyronne Walker, vice president for policy, strategic partnerships and development with the Louisiana Urban League, said there’s no denying Black voter turnout is not where they’d like it to be. But he added that the historical barriers cannot be overlooked in discussions around voter turnout.
“We have to recognize that we live in a country that has had centuries of systematic, well-designed barriers that are intended to disenfranchise African Americans and other marginalized communities, and those barriers still exist,” Walker said.
Polling has shown Landry leading the field, with Wilson placing second.
A Gray TV poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy and released in mid-September found Landry at 40 percent, Wilson at 24 percent and all others at less than 10 percent. A hypothetical runoff matchup between Landry and Wilson found the Republican attorney general at 52 percent, while Wilson received 39 percent.
Landry has been buoyed by an early endorsement from the state GOP and former President Trump, in addition to a sizable cash advantage over Wilson. Wilson has received endorsements from Edwards, Democratic National Committee senior adviser Cedric Richmond and Rep. Troy Carter (D-La.), in addition to the state Democratic Party.
The Republican Governors Association (RGA) Right Direction PAC has poured close to $4 million into the race targeting Landry’s opponent, while the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) has spent around $500,000.
Wilson has made the issue of bipartisanship and infrastructure a centerpiece of his campaign, while Landry has leaned into issues such as crime and jobs. Though strategists see a steep climb for Wilson in November, a win for the former Transportation secretary would make him the first Black elected official in the state since Reconstruction — something his campaign has nodded to in at least one of its ads.
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said this “significant historical moment” could have been a chance for investment from the larger Democratic Party, but instead neither the party nor other progressive donors took advantage of the opportunity.
“There’s really no discussion, and more importantly, very little lack of investment in voter mobilization,” Albright told The Hill. “That includes the party itself not putting a lot into this election, which, unfortunately, is a pattern that we’re seeing in Southern states in general and particularly in states that have Black candidates.”
Albright added that though the early voting numbers aren’t as high as Black Voters Matter might have hoped, Black voters have often had larger turnout in the general election than the primary.
A Wilson campaign official told The Hill that the campaign has been doing voter outreach to its base, noting he’s been on the airwaves in every media market, has been doing outreach in churches and has taken part in interviews on Black-owned radio shows. The person also noted that the campaign has employed surrogates including Edwards and Carter to do robocalls.
“Since March, Shawn Wilson has traveled more than 45,000 miles meeting with communities across Louisiana to talk about what is at stake this election, up and down the ballot,” Wilson campaign manager Brandin Campbell said in a statement.
“His work ethic and commitment to all Louisianans has earned him the support of elected leaders, community advocates, and a strong coalition of allies who understand this is an all-hands-on-deck effort to take on Jeff Landry in the runoff and elect the most qualified slate of candidates to move Louisiana forward,” he added.
Some Democrats believe they’re also dealing with factors that are out of their control. is said the very setup of Louisiana elections make it difficult for voter turnout. The election is taking place in an off-year, when there is no midterm or presidential election, and on a Saturday in mid-October.
“You’re not talking about an incumbent that’s able to use their existing name recognition to turn people out,” Albright said.
“Shawn is many things — incredibly intelligent and able — but he’s not necessarily a Stacey Abrams or Barack Obama type of figure that has a lot of name recognition.”
But education plays a big role too, Albright added. He noted that Black voters who see topics such as education, economy and reproductive health as some of the most important issues may not be aware that the Republican candidates are just as right-leaning as other well-known politicians, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
Low voter turnout also comes at a time when many are worried about voter suppression. Just this week, a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana heard oral arguments to determine whether new congressional maps can be ordered by the district court. The arguments follow the cancellation of a lower court’s hearing, which was expected to approve a map containing two majority-Black congressional districts.
Though the maps wouldn’t affect the gubernatorial election, Walker said these types of actions send a message to voters.
“Whenever a group of people see that policies that are enacted are harmful to them or that we have extremely gerrymandered districts that dilute their voting power, it causes people to feel that there’s no point to then participate in the election process,” Walker said.
But some groups, like the Urban League and Black Voters Matter, have been trying to mobilize voters anyway. The latter has actually been using the cases to tell Black voters that’s why their votes are so important.
“We try to flip that, right, to highlight these cases in order to make clear to our community that the reason all this is happening, the reason they’re trying to gerrymander us, the reason they’re trying to keep us from the polls is because they know that we have power,” Albright said.
“If we can communicate around it correctly and inspire people and get folks to see that this is being done because of our power, we can actually further motivate and actually increase turnout,” he added.