A Louisiana Elections Primer: The next four years will be a wild ride

By Robert Mann

“I advise anyone who thinks he knows something about politics to go down to Louisiana and take a postgraduate course.” –Texas U.S. Sen. Tom Connally, 1932.

If you are obsessed with politics, Louisiana is the place for you – especially over the next four years.

In that time, Louisiana voters will choose a new governor and elect (or re-elect) two U.S. senators. Those elections will probably trigger a flood of competitive races to fill resulting vacancies, as at least one U.S. senator, several U.S. House members and three statewide elected officials may be vacating their seats to run for higher office.

Those races, in turn, would trigger a domino effect of vacancies for lower offices — from the U.S. House all the way down to school board – as other officials scramble to run for the multitude of open seats.

So, with that in mind, here’s the lay of the political land in Louisiana:

2014: U.S. Senate Race

First up is the 2014 U.S. Senate race in which Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, will be running for her fourth six-year term. It will be a tough race (Landrieu always has difficult re-election races), but as I wrote recently, it’s much too early to write her off. Still, her approval rating in a recent statewide poll was 47 percent — not horrible, but just low enough to cause her some concern.

LandrieuVitterDutchJan06

Sens. Mary Landrieu and David Vitter

It’s not yet clear who will challenge Landrieu; although it does not appear she will face a serious challenge within her party.

On the Republican side, the field is far from clear, although it’s a bit more in focus than a month ago. In the past few weeks, U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany of Lake Charles and Steve Scalise of Metairie have said they will not run.

That leaves as possible GOP candidates U.S. Reps. Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge and John Fleming of Shreveport, BESE Board President Chas Roemer (son of former Gov. Buddy Roemer), former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry of New Iberia, and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.

While it’s still too early to say who will run, it’s unlikely that all of the above will be candidates. My guess is that Dardenne, Landry and Roemer will not enter the race, leaving Cassidy and Fleming to challenge each other for a shot at Landrieu.

A crowded GOP field in 2014 would suit Landrieu just fine. Four or five Republican challengers would probably spark an internecine war. The GOP candidates would attack each other as much or more as they would assail Landrieu.

But Landrieu is not likely to get a field that big. However, the prospect of just two challengers might not bother Landrieu much, as intraparty squabbling would still be very likely.

So, the question then becomes will GOP leaders in DC or in Louisiana clear the field completely so that a lone Republican challenger has a clean shot at Landrieu? If they want to take a seat away from a vulnerable incumbent, that’s what they’ll do. Look for Sen. David Vitter and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to work diligently to ensure a lone GOP opponent for Landrieu.

And who would be the strongest candidate against Landrieu? According to a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey, it’s virtually a dead heat between Cassidy and Fleming, with Cassidy holding a slight edge. But Landrieu leads them both by ten points or more.

My sense is that Cassidy would be the stronger candidate for two reasons – he is not as gaffe prone as Fleming and, because he represents Baton Rouge, he could draw upon a larger, south Louisiana voter base in a general election.

If Cassidy and Fleming both run, there will be robust races in Baton Rouge and Shreveport to fill their House seats, but both would probably remain in the GOP column.

2015: Governor’s Race

Gov. Bobby Jindal is not eligible to run for re-election in the fall of 2015, so expect a crowded field.

So far, there’s only one announced candidate – the House Democratic leader, Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite. Republican state Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain is reportedly telling friends and associates that he plans to run.

Other likely candidates include: Dardenne, who has made no secret of his desire to be governor; Vitter, who seems to be gearing up for a run; state Treasurer John Kennedy, who has positioned himself as Jindal’s nemesis, especially over the governor’s mismanagement of the state’s budget; PSC Commissioner Scott Angelle, Jindal’s former National Resources secretary and the man the governor appointed as acting lieutenant governor when former Mitch Landrieu left that job to become New Orleans mayor; and Republican state Sen. Gerald Long of Natchitoches.

There is also Mitch Landrieu, one of the best-known and most-popular Democratic officials in Louisiana. A PPP poll recently showed Mayor Landrieu tied with Vitter in a gubernatorial matchup, and ahead of Dardenne by two points.

But it’s not clear that the popular New Orleans mayor is ready to abandon his office; he looks ready to run for another term as chief executive of a city that desperately needs his strong, charismatic leadership. Walking away from that job would be hard – but it could also be another eight years before there’s an open governor’s seat in Baton Rouge. It’s difficult to see how Landrieu’s star would be any brighter eight years hence. The 2015 race may be his best time to run.

And then there’s James Bernhard, the ex-Shaw Group chairman (and former Louisiana Democratic Party chair) who wanted the job of U.S. energy secretary, but saw that position go to someone else. Bernhard has wanted to run for statewide public office in Louisiana for years. Now that he no longer has a company to run, this may be his time.

So, who would be the favored candidates in this potentially crowded field?

First, let’s consider the Republicans.

Much like Mary Landrieu, Vitter is a legendary and fierce competitor. Should he run, he would take nothing for granted and would benefit from having been deeply involved in helping build and maintain the modern Republican Party in Louisiana (something for which Jindal has not shown much interest).

What’s not clear is whether Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal will have an impact on voters’ opinion of him as a potential governor. While Vitter handily won re-election to the Senate in 2010 — three years after the scandal broke — it may be that Louisiana voters now have a higher standard of behavior for their governors, the one person who embodies the state more than any other. In the 16 years since Edwin Edwards moved out of the governor’s mansion, the office has been essentially scandal free. In his favor would be that the scandal broke eight years earlier, a lifetime in politics. Vitter is also Jindal’s bitter rival, so look for the governor to do his best to undermine the junior senator should he run for another office.

Dardenne, the most popular Louisiana Republican, appears very well positioned to make a strong showing. While he was virtually tied with Vitter in the recent PPP poll, that survey assumed a head-up race with no Democrat in the runoff — a potential outcome, but not likely if Landrieu is a candidate.

2011 North Louisiana Travel Outlook Conference...

Jay Dardenne (Photo credit: Shreveport-Bossier: Louisiana’s Other Side)

Those who questioned Dardenne’s campaigning acumen and his ability to take a punch got a decisive answer in 2011, when the moderate Republican lieutenant governor vanquished Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor endorsed by Vitter (and “encouraged” by Jindal).

Speaking of Jindal, he can’t run, but he can sponsor his own candidate. And that person appears to be his friend and former aide Scott Angelle, who is a very good and tireless campaigner. However, the new PSC member may find that Jindal’s support might be best limited to help with fundraising and other behind-the-scenes work. If Jindal’s popularity remains low, an endorsement might hurt Angelle more than it would help. And, besides, Jindal has never demonstrated an ability to transfer his popularity to other candidates. If Dardenne and Vitter run for governor, Angelle might find that his best bet is to run for the number-two office that he once (temporarily) held.

Even in a crowded field, don’t underestimate John Kennedy. He’s been more outspoken in opposition to Jindal than most Democrats and has made a name for himself by questioning Jindal’s stewardship of the state’s budget. After years of disastrous budgetary shortfalls, Louisiana voters might be ready for someone like Kennedy who can articulate a reasonable and commonsense approach to balancing the state’s books.

Now, for the Democrats.

When people ask me if John Bel Edwards has a chance to be governor, I usually respond: First tell me if Mitch Landrieu or Jim Bernhard will run, and then tell me how much money Edwards will have in the bank a year from now.

Edwards could be a formidable candidate. He’s a veteran and a West Point graduate, and he knows state issues as well as anyone. He’s a solid communicator. I’ve seen him debate and he’s good. But while he has a fairly high profile in the House, his statewide name recognition is probably low (unless, of course, people mistake him for Edwin Edwards).

He has lots of potential, but for now it’s way too soon to declare him the Democratic candidate to beat.

However, if either Mitch Landrieu or Bernhard enter the race, that changes everything, especially for Edwards.

As a former lieutenant governor (and younger brother of Louisiana’s senior U.S. senator), Landrieu already has millions of dollars in statewide name recognition.

Bernhard already has millions of dollars.

Landrieu, of course, has been in politics all his life (his father, Moon, was New Orleans mayor in the 1970s). Of the two, based on campaign experience alone, he’s the safer bet to emerge as the leading Democrat. Bernhard has never sought a political office and CEOs have a mixed record in politics. It takes a certain kind of business executive to win elections and it’s not yet clear if Bernhard is that kind of executive. He could be, but that’s to be determined.

Mitch Landrieu

And then there’s the other Landrieu. Should Mary Landrieu lose her re-election in 2014, might she run for governor? After all, she became senator in 1997 on the heels of her unsuccessful 1995 governor’s race. She would only be 59, after all. Stranger things have happened.

2016: U.S. Senate Race

It’s way too early to be speculating about 2016 — but let’s do it anyway.

First, we don’t know if David Vitter will be governor or running for his third term in the Senate. If he’s governor, he will appoint his successor. Who knows who that might be and whether that person would run for a full term. Regardless of Vitter’s situation, look for one or two unsuccessful gubernatorial candidates to cash in on the name recognition earned in that race. That’s what Mary Landrieu did in 1996, after losing her bid for governor in 1995.

Speaking of Landrieu, if she loses re-election and passes on the 2015 governor’s race, what’s to prevent her from running for the Senate again? In many ways, 2016 would be far more favorable for her, as she will have no presidential election in 2014 to help drive Democratic turnout. In 2016, there will be a presidential election and, if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, that could boost Landrieu – or whoever the Democrat is – by bringing a flood of Democratic women to the pools.

As I say, it’s way too early to speculate about 2106, but it’s not too early to predict that the next four years will be a political junkie’s dream.

Enjoy the ride.

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4 Responses to A Louisiana Elections Primer: The next four years will be a wild ride

  1. Reblogged this on The Daily Kingfish and commented:
    More Bob on the next four years.

    Like

  2. Andrew says:

    “As I say, it’s way too early to speculate about 2106, ”

    2106 is a long way off, but I still see the Landrieu descendants involved in LA politics

    Like

  3. Pingback: Wild political ride ahead; who’s in charge of charters? Sinkhole buyouts promised | Louisiana News Feed

  4. Jesse Smith says:

    “Its way too early to speculate about 2106, but…” This phrase, more than any other, speaks volumes about the problems with our modern political system.

    Like

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