…plus c'est la même chose. The Ideological Stakes in the House Speaker Race
Guest post by Martin Johnson
The election of House Speaker Taylor Barras over other leading candidates Walt Leger III and Cameron Henry clearly has implications for how state policy makers will negotiate the significant fiscal crises the state faces. Some insist this is an positive assertion of legislative independence. Others warn that Barras’s election represents a partisan turn for the Louisiana House, while a few pundits on the right likely jumped the gun in declaring the governor a “lame duck” on his first day in office.
Much has been written about the process by which Barras was elected. While the backstage machinations matter, it is worth asking just what Edwards lost, from a policy standpoint, when the House chose Barras over Leger. Further, what did he avoid in a potential speakership for Cameron Henry?
Political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty have done extensive work aimed at understanding how liberal or conservative are members of state legislatures nationwide over the last two decades. They use roll call voting data on bills considered by state legislatures and the responses of legislative candidates to Project Vote Smart’s National Political Awareness Test to estimate political ideology scores, or “ideal points” for state lawmakers 1993-2014.
Most of the players in this speakership drama served together in the Louisiana House, so we can compare their ideological scores in the Shor-McCarty data. These data shed some additional light on the underlying politics at work here.
In the figure below, I map the estimated ideological positions of Edwards, Leger, Henry and Barras. For Barras, I include separate estimates from his tenure as a Democrat (2008-2011) and as a Republican (2011-2014). These different scores for Barras are designated by his name tagged with a superscript D for his service as a Democrat and a superscript R for his more recent service as a Republican. I also include Republican Chris Broadwater, an Edwards supporter whom some observers intimate might have been a better candidate for the Governor to support for Speaker (more on this below).
To get a sense of the overall ideological range in the Louisiana House of Representatives, I include asterisks at either end that represent the most conservative Republican (on the right end of the line) and the most liberal Democrat (on the left end of the line) who served in 2014. The graph also shows the median position among all lawmakers serving in the House in 2014 (H); this is essentially a marker of the middle position among members of the chamber, with half falling to the right and half falling to the left of this point. Finally, I include indicators for the median positions among just Democrats (D) and among just Republican (R) in the chamber.
The logic of this spatial model is intuitive, but to clarify, the closer a person is to another on the line, the more ideologically similar they are. They tend to want similar policies from government, similar patterns of taxing and spending, similar social policies as well. Distance is just that.
Similarly, the closer an individual is to the median position of a group (such as a party or the whole chamber), the more likely he is to appeal to a majority of that group, at least in terms of ideology. Likewise, the distance between the median positions of different groups reveals how ideologically close those groups are. For example, the median Republican is much closer to the median House member than the median Democrat is. This is due to the fact that there are more Republicans in the chamber.
Admittedly, the Shor-McCarty estimates reduce politics to a single dimension, which is a fraught set of assumptions, and tends to ignore the personality, character and much of the complexity that makes politics interesting. Instead, they capture an underlying dimension of policy considerations on a fundamental left-right continuum.
Looking at where the players in the Speaker’s race fall on this spectrum reveals four important points that should be remembered when assessing the significance of Barras’s election.
First, this figure shows convincingly that when Leger lost the speakership, Edwards lost a true ideological partner. Importantly, both are quite close to the median Democrat in the Louisiana House, strong representatives of their colleagues in the legislature.
However, this also illustrates just how extraordinary the Leger candidacy was from the outset. Leger is substantially to the left of the median member of the Louisiana House. In other words, any member of the chamber who is closer to the House median had a better shot a securing a majority of votes – at least if the choice was strictly based on ideology. That is a lot of members and especially a lot of Republicans.
Second, Barras as a Republican is a near-perfect representative of his party in the chamber given his close proximity to the median Republican. (As a Democrat in the late 2000s, he voted to the left of the 2014 House median.) Interestingly, Barras currently occupies virtually the same ideological position as former Speaker Chuck Kleckley. In this sense, the selection of Barras represents an extension of the status quo in the House. There may be a new governor from a different political party, but this change did not really touch the leadership of the lower chamber.
Third, from this spatial perspective, Cameron Henry would also have been an extraordinary and odd choice for Speaker compared to Barras – an ideologically poor fit for Edwards but also for House Republicans. Henry is obviously further than Barras from Edwards, but he is also further than Barras from the median Republican. With Barras’s availability as a candidate, there is little reason to think that House Republicans would want the considerably more conservative Henry, absent pressure from a Republican governor.
Finally, this figure also underscores what some view as the main error in Governor Edwards’s strategy on the House speakership. If he had shown support for a more moderate Republican like Chris Broadwater, he probably would have gotten his pick. Broadwater occupies ideological ground to the left of Barras and is himself more reflective of the ideological composition of the Louisiana House than either Barras or Henry, just to the right of the House median.
Of course, Edwards may have been able to find a Democrat who is closer to the House median too. The only serving Democrat who is as close to the House median as Broadwater, but on the left side, is Michael Danahy of Sulphur. However, Danahy did not seek the Speaker’s job. He should have a great relationship with Barras as the two have been seatmates in the House for the past six years.
In the end, the Speaker’s election turned out pretty consistent with what we might have expected, based on a spatial model. The Republicans who control the chamber chose a candidate who stands at the center of their party. The result leaves considerable distance between Edwards and the Speaker – at least based on past voting records – but it nevertheless gives him someone to work with who is ideologically closer than he would have had in Henry.