By Robert Mann
Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me: “Who’s our next governor?” For a while, I would shrug and say, “Too soon to tell.” The field wasn’t set. We didn’t know if New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu or state Treasurer John Kennedy, or others, might jump in.
Now we know. Landrieu won’t run, and Kennedy endorsed Sen. David Vitter. That means, with less than six months to go before the Oct. 24 open primary, the major candidates will be three Republicans (Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle) against Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite.
The call should now be easy: With more cash than the other three candidates combined (over $4 million, not counting a well-funded super PAC with at least $3.5 million) and with about 35 percent in the polls, the race should be Vitter’s to lose. Most everyone assumes there will be a runoff, as no candidate is likely to claim a majority in the October primary.
With Edwards also polling in the 30s, there’s limited opportunity for Angelle or Dardenne to shove the Democrat aside to claim a runoff spot. For his part, Vitter certainly wants to face Edwards, as that match-up should be advantageous for him in this increasingly Republican state. If the November 2014 runoff between Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy is any indication, voters are not likely to elect a Democrat to statewide office anytime soon.
That’s the conventional wisdom – and over the past 36 years and possibly longer – the conventional wisdom has usually been wrong in contested governor’s races. In fact, being the leading candidate in a campaign for an open governor’s seat is often a highly perilous position. Conversely, dwelling near or at the back of the pack with about six months to go is sometimes not a bad spot.
Let’s start with the 1979 governor’s race, which was one of the more exciting and talent-filled contests in Louisiana history. Early in 1979, polls showed then-Lt. Gov. Jimmy Fitzmorris virtually tied with congressmen Gillis Long and Dave Treen. Each polled about 20 percent (Long would not run). Dragging up the rear was Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert with 5 percent. By mid-October, just weeks before the election, Treen narrowly maintained his lead, virtually tied with Fitzmorris. Secretary of State Paul Hardy was in third place with 12 percent. Lambert remained stuck at 9 percent.
On election night, however, Lambert claimed a runoff spot, only to lose the runoff with Treen by less than one percent.
Next, to 1987, when then-Gov. Edwin Edwards sought a fourth term. As late as August of that year, he and U.S Rep. Bob Livingston, R-Metairie, were virtually tied. Secretary of State Jim Brown and U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin were in the low teens. Behind the field, with 8 points, was U.S. Rep. Buddy Roemer. By election night, Roemer surged into a runoff with Edwards, who conceded the race that evening.
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