State lawmakers return to Baton Rouge this week for a legislative session that will be guided in part by Gov. Bobby Jindal and at times re-routed by U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Sure, roughly 1,200 miles separate the State Capitol from Capitol Hill, but distance has never stopped Vitter from interfering with politics back home while he's away.
Vitter's campaign for governor all but guarantees he'll look for opportunities to shore up support with his conservative base in Louisiana — probably at Jindal's expense. This effort could materialize first in the heart of the Louisiana Legislature's majority, the GOP House delegation, which is in danger of becoming factionalized. Again.
While the so-called fiscal hawks drew fire from some for allegedly trying to yank the GOP delegation past its ideological middle ground last year, another group of Republicans known as the Louisiana Legislative Conservative Coalition (LLCC) now is trying to move things farther to the right.
LLCC chair Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreve-port, already has pledged his allegiance to Vitter's campaign for governor. No doubt Vitter will get his share of other legislative supporters as well, but some GOP lawmakers likely will favor one of Vitter's Republican opponents — Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, state Treasurer John Kennedy (if he runs) or someone else.
If politics come into play, as they usually do, this could have members of the LLCC making decisions based on who would benefit more — Vitter or Jindal. While the governor is term-limited, his shrinking popularity gives Vitter lots of running room for now, before the field of real contenders grows larger and more likely to attack the presumed Republican frontrunner.
If potential pushback from the LLCC weren't enough, the fiscal hawks, known more formally as the Budget Reform Coalition, often challenge Jindal's spending priorities. Last year the hawks teamed up with Democrats to reach budget compromises, and in the process they angered Republicans who are loyal to the governor.
Given how much the junior senator has enjoyed meddling with state government (and Jindal) in the past, it's a safe bet he'll continue to focus on state issues to gain traction in his own campaign for governor. How will that play out? Vitter says the Committee for a Republican Majority, which he helped create to elect GOP lawmakers, remains active. But how much can Vitter afford to play in legislative races while he runs for governor?
Lucky for Vitter, he has other targets besides Jindal. The senator's recent call for the criminal prosecution of Walmart shoppers suspected of food stamp fraud put state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell on the defensive. It was a strategic move for Vitter, who is backing former Congressman Jeff Landry's run against Caldwell. Whether (and where) Vitter will strike next is unknown, but the session offers many opportunities.
Landry is taking shots at Caldwell for, as he puts it, illegally authorizing the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East to hire outside attorneys for a lawsuit against 97 energy companies. If Vitter is indeed forming an old-fashioned political ticket with Landry as his AG, he may join the fight against the levee board suit.
What the ticket appears to be missing is a candidate for lieutenant governor. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser is a candidate and a Vitter ally. It would explain why Nungesser has been forthcoming as of late with explanations about how the Plaquemines Parish Council, and not his office, filed 21 separate lawsuits against oil and gas companies for damaging parish wetlands.
If lawmakers really want to get on Vitter's good side, they'll do something about that pesky $100,000 contribution limit. It's keeping the Fund for Louisiana's Future, a super PAC created to back Vitter's run for governor, from following the federal "unlimited contributions" rule. Just in case lawmakers don't remove the cap, the super PAC's treasurer, Charlie Spies, filed a suit to abolish it.
Either way, the 2014 session will be the first of two in which Vitter gets to act like the governor without actually holding the office. That will give voters time to vet Vitter before deciding (in the October 2015 primary) whether to give him the job permanently — or keep him at a not-so-safe distance.