Gov. Bobby Jindal became the Republican Golden Boy after his juggernaut primary victory in 2007 and his whirlwind special legislative successes in early 2008, but 2009 has shown that he has a "minus touch" when it comes to his attempts to establish political coattails.
After initially saying he would stay out of legislative elections (a promise he kept in the 2007 runoffs), Jindal has twice injected himself into special state Senate elections — both times with disastrous results.
The latest example came on Aug. 29 in Senate District 20, which straddles the lower portions of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. Jindal ran very well there in 2007, John McCain carried the district handily last November and African-American voters comprise less than 14 percent of the registered voters there. This looked to be a slam dunk for Jindal — or so it would appear on the surface.
It wasn't. Despite the district's conservative bent and support of Jindal and McCain in statewide and national elections, voters there have consistently sent a Democrat to Baton Rouge. That should have been a red flag for Jindal.
The governor stayed out of the primary, but the runoff pitted Republican Brent Callais of Lafourche against Democrat Norby Chabert of Terrebonne. No doubt sensing a chance to pick up a state Senate seat — and perhaps testing the swamps in anticipation of a push to take Congressman Charlie Melancon's Third District seat next November — the state GOP pulled out all the stops against Chabert.
During the primary, Chabert acknowledged that he voted for Barack Obama for president, although he expressed reservations about some of Obama's current policies. Republican strategists smelled blood in the water. In the runoff, they mailed a slick flier to voters across the district showing Obama in a white doctor's coat and warning that Chabert would bring the president's health care policies to Baton Rouge. It was a typically heavy-handed Republican attack, and for a while it appeared to be working.
But the Chabert name is a familiar one along the bayou. Norby Chabert, 33, is the younger brother of former state Sen. Marty Chabert and the son of the late state Sen. Leonard J. Chabert. Between them, Leonard and Marty Chabert represented the district from 1980 to 1996. The public hospital in Houma is named for the French-speaking Leonard, who still holds legendary status in Little Caillou and lower Lafourche.
Somebody should have warned Jindal that he was diving headlong into a political swamp. When the votes were counted, despite an all-out push to wrap Jindal around Callais and Obama around Chabert, the young Democrat won by a comfortable 54-46 percent margin. Moreover, Chabert carried 21 of 33 precincts in Callais' native Lafourche and 31 of 55 precincts in Terrebonne — some of them by margins exceeding 10 to 1.
It was a replay of another disaster in Senate District 16 earlier this spring, when Jindal interjected himself into an all-Republican primary in support of businessman Lee Domingue. In that race, Domingue was crushed in the runoff by attorney Dan Claitor — in the district where Jindal grew up. In that race as well, Jindal's allies overplayed their hand and overestimated the Golden Boy's transferability.
As Jindal continues to calculate his every move with an eye toward his political future beyond Louisiana, his every move inside the state will take on greater significance. Going forward, whether in Louisiana or Iowa, Jindal would do well to heed the wisdom of the late Tip O'Neill, who famously observed, "All politics are local."