By Hastings Wyman –
US Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s gubernatorial race in the Bayou State, but he is not a lead-pipe cinch. Vitter has “the strongest voter ID, the most money and the deepest donor pool, so he’s the favorite,” says political scientist Joshua Stockley of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Vitter is “the 800 lb. gorilla,” says a well-connected lobbyist.
Vitter’s prospects are bright. He’s raised $4.5 million and has another $3.5 million in his federal account, which he can’t use in a state race. And Vitter led in the last two polls, in both the primary and the runoff.
But with no incumbent in the race – Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is term-limited – a number of other candidates have already announced for governor, and with the August 11 filing deadline months away, more could run, especially on the Republican side.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R) and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle (R), a former lieutenant governor, have also entered in the race. Each has advantages. Dardenne has won statewide before and in early 2014, reported $1.2 million on hand. Angelle impressed folks when he reported raising $1.5 million in his first financial report. Both trail Vitter, but are raising enough to mount a campaign.
Waiting in the wings are at least three other potential Republican contenders. State Treasurer John Neely Kennedy; Burl Cain, who runs the state’s maximum security prison at Angola; and Lt. Gen. Russel Honore (ret). None has ruled out a gubernatorial bid, but it is getting late to raise the money and hire the staff a serious campaign requires.
Kennedy is the most serious additional candidate. He is particularly well-placed to talk about the state government’s financial problems, and a year ago, had some $3 million in his campaign fund. But, says Stockley, “I’m highly skeptical that Kennedy will enter this race… [T]here’s no room for him. Vitter is the conservative in the race. Angelle and Dardenne are more moderate. And John Bel Edwards is the lone Democrat.”
State House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards, “a typical populist Southern Democrat,” says Stockley, announced in February 2013, that he would run for governor this year. But since then, he “has gained no traction in terms of money or name ID.”
Enter – maybe – Mitch Landrieu. Scion of a super-prominent Louisiana political dynasty, a former lieutenant governor and currently mayor of New Orleans. Landrieu is giving the race serious thought, say insiders. His decision is “the biggest question on the Democratic side,” says Trey Ourso, a political consultant and former executive director of the state’s Democratic Party. Landrieu has plenty of name ID and a plethora of contacts.
But, notes Stockley, Landrieu has to be deferential to Edwards as the established Democratic candidate. Two Democrats in the jungle primary “would be fratricide,” with the two splitting the Democratic vote. But one Democrat might make it to the runoff and maybe have a fighting chance. So for Landrieu to run, Edwards would have to step aside. While Landrieu might be the stronger Democrat, GOPers note that Republican Bill Cassidy defeated Landrieu’s sister, former US Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), 56% to 44% last November.
The state government’s financial condition is the big issue, even among Republicans. Vitter said a new governor’s “first big challenge will be to stabilize the budget,” reported Gannett Louisiana. “The state is in a mess,” said state Treasurer Kennedy. Democrat Edwards agreed: “Louisiana is in tough shape … People want something different.” (Jindal, a potential presidential candidate, would, of course, disagree.) Other issues, including immigration and restoration of the state’s coastal region, will also play a role.
A poll taken in mid-January by NSO Research showed Vitter in the lead with 24%, Edwards second at 22%, Kennedy 13%, Dardenne 10% and Angelle 2%. And a Southern Media & Opinion survey taken in December showed Vitter with 36%, Edwards 26%, Dardenne 19% and Angelle 3%. Polls of hypothetical runoffs taken last fall showed Vitter leading both Edwards and his fellow Republicans.
Assuming Vitter leads in the October 24 every-one-regardless-of-party primary, but does not get a majority, his victory in the November 21 runoff “depends on who he gets in the runoff with … There’s a big ‘anybody-but-Vitter’ crowd,” says Democrat Ourso. Some of the hardcore opposition to Vitter is ideological, but some is based on Vitter’s 2007 prostitute-related scandal. While Vitter has been reelected since, “People evaluate a candidate for governor differently,” opines Ourso. “He would be here in your face everyday as governor, not up in Washington.” If Dardenne or Angelle, both viewed as more moderate than Vitter, make it to the November 21 runoff with Vitter, either might be able to win, mainly by keeping their Republican supporters and gaining the votes of moderates and Democrats, including some African Americans.
But all things considered, it’s still Vitter’s to lose. Stay tuned.