WASHINGTON — Washington--LOUISIANA Gov. Buddy Roemer's decision to defect from the Democratic Party and run for re-election as a Republican is another clear signal of the resurgence of the race factor in American politics today.
The political calculations involved in the switch are obvious. If Roemer had run as a moderately conservative Democrat, which is what he has been, he would have faced the prospect that most of the white vote in Louisiana -- roughly three-fourths of the total -- could have been split among himself, David Duke and a Republican candidate of some prominence such as former Gov. David Treen. Most of the black vote, which could run as high as 20 to 25 percent of the total, would be likely to go to former Gov. Edwin Edwards, the best-known Democrat in the field other than Roemer himself.
Under the Louisiana system all candidates of both parties run in an Oct. 19 primary and, if no one gets a majority, the two leading candidates face each other in a runoff Nov. 16. By most reckonings, Roemer would have been considered likely to get into that runoff against either Edwards or Duke and favored to defeat either.
But Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who now styles himself a Republican, already has demonstrated that the race factor is touchy enough to give him an imposing base in the Louisiana electorate. In the Senate campaign last fall he polled 44 percent against the incumbent Democrat, J. Bennett Johnston. Thus, there was at least the possibility that Roemer might not have made the runoff. If there were a respectable Republican in the field, the problem could have been simply not enough conservative white votes to go around.
Duke is a markedly disruptive figure in Louisiana politics. Although he does not rely totally on race-linked issues, his ability to play on resentment of affirmative action programs is enough in itself to create an instant constituency that may be a minority but is large enough to skew all the normal political calculations. Indeed, the volatility of the "reverse discrimination" issue has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent years, most obviously in Sen. Jesse Helms' campaign against a black Democrat, Harvey Gantt, in North Carolina last fall.
Now, however, Roemer can look ahead to the possibility that he will not have another prominent Republican diluting his base. If that is the case, he will be favored to make the runoff and defeat either Duke or Edwards, whom he defeated in a primary four years ago. Although the flamboyant Edwards has a hard core of devoted partisans, he also carries heavy negatives.
The national Republican leadership has an obvious stake in Roemer's campaign, a stake reflected in the White House role in encouraging him to switch parties and in President Bush's quick statement of welcome. If he loses after switching, other potential Democratic defectors elsewhere may be discouraged. More to the point, he gives the Republicans a candidate who can run ahead of Duke, whom the national and state party have both disowned despite his self-identification as a Republican.
Some national Republican leaders have nightmares about the possibility that Duke might win the governorship and then run against President Bush in some of the southern presidential primaries next spring. Although no one believes Duke would be a serious threat to Bush, he would focus more attention on race questions than the president or his advisers might like to see.
Roemer still may face some turns in the road. His relatively liberal positions on some social issues and his veto last year of an extremist anti-abortion bill may encourage an opponent from the far right. Politicians who change parties sometimes are vulnerable to charges of political opportunism, although it may be difficult for either Edwards or Duke to make such a case against Roemer.
The history of party switchers is mixed. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas has become a leading national Republican less than a decade after changing from Democrat to Republican as a member of the House. But former Rep. Tommy Robinson of Arkansas changed last year to run for governor and was beaten in a Republican primary. Former Rep. Kent Hance, a member of the conservative Democratic "boll weevil" bloc in the House, has lost two statewide primaries in Texas since he became a Republican.
But the Roemer case is clearly different because of the race element. If there were no David Duke, the Republicans wouldn't need Buddy Roemer -- and Buddy Roemer wouldn't need the Republican Party.