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Trunk Showdown 

Clancy DuBos on the GOP battling its own for statewide offices

click to enlarge Former GOP congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao has said he plans to run for attorney general.
  • Former GOP congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao has said he plans to run for attorney general.
It wasn't that long ago — a mere five years, in fact — that Louisiana stood out among southern states as a Democratic stronghold, a "blue" island surrounded by a vast "red" sea. At this point in 2006, Democrats held six of seven state offices and one U.S. Senate seat. Today, only one statewide elected official is a Democrat: U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.

  The Democrats' woes don't end there. Qualifying for a host of state and local offices is Tuesday through Thursday (Sept. 6-8), and the Blue Party is virtually devoid of standard bearers in statewide contests. Though some have flirted with the idea, no major (read: well-financed) candidate has emerged to carry the Democratic banner against Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. (See, "Holy Snoozer, Batman," p. 24.) Most other statewide GOP incumbents could enjoy the same fate.

  While that normally would elicit a chorus of hurrahs among GOP loyalists, the dearth of Democratic opponents doesn't mean that all Republican incumbents will get a free ride. In fact, two of the most hotly contested elections on the Oct. 22 ballot are likely to be Republican-versus-Republican brawls — the races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state.

  The stakes are high, and one high-powered Republican already has come out against two GOP incumbents. It's more than another round of elections; it's a culture war for the heart, mind and future of the Louisiana Republican Party.

Louisiana's blue-to-red sea change seems to have happened quickly, but it's been a long time in coming, say veteran political experts. They cite several factors.

click to enlarge Incumbent Attorney General Buddy Caldwell switched from Democrat to the GOP after he was elected and may face off against fellow Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao.
  • Incumbent Attorney General Buddy Caldwell switched from Democrat to the GOP after he was elected and may face off against fellow Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao.

  Hurricane Katrina literally swept away at least 100,000 Democratic voters, but Louisiana already was trending Republican. "Katrina, for a host of reasons, accelerated the trend," says historian Bob Mann, a professor of mass communications at LSU and former press secretary to Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "It certainly cost the Democrats the Governor's Mansion, which then led to many other problems for Democrats."

  A year before Bobby Jindal's juggernaut victory in the 2007 gubernatorial primary, Republican state Sen. Jay Dardenne won a special election as secretary of state, and Republican state Rep. Jim Donelon won a special election as commissioner of insurance. Along with Jindal capturing the Governor's Mansion, the GOP won five of seven statewide offices up for grabs in '07. In one instance, state Treasurer John Kennedy switched from Democrat to Republican shortly before qualifying and won re-election easily.

  Since then, the two statewide offices won by Democrats in 2007 have gone Republican. Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who was elected as a Democrat, switched to the GOP, and Dardenne won a special election for lieutenant governor when Democrat Mitch Landrieu won the 2010 mayor's race in New Orleans. Dardenne was succeeded as secretary of state by his top assistant, Tom Schedler, also a Republican.

  Add to all that Barack Obama's election as president in 2008.

  "For many reasons, including race, Obama's election drove more nominal white Democrats into the arms of Republicans," Mann says. "Obama got only 14 percent of Louisiana's white vote, so I think it's pretty clear that he's really hurting the Democrats in Louisiana as the standard bearer of the party."

click to enlarge Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, a Republican, is running for lieutenant governor.
  • Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, a Republican, is running for lieutenant governor.

  Baton Rouge-based political pollster Bernie Pinsonat of Southern Media and Opinion Research agrees. "Put Barack Obama's picture next to a picture of a Democratic candidate in Louisiana, and he or she loses just about every time," says Pinsonat, who has worked for Republican as well as Democratic candidates.

  On top of all that, Mann says, the recent round of reapportionment and redistricting solidified the GOP's hold on the Legislature and most Bayou State congressional seats. Republicans enjoy a majority in both the state House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.

  So what's left for Republicans to do but beat up on one another ... much as Democrats used to do when the GOP was a marginal factor in statewide politics?

  That's exactly what we'll see in the races for lieutenant governor and secretary of state — and possibly attorney general. It's shaping up as one helluva show.

Because of Jindal's obvious national ambitions, many view the race for lieutenant governor as a race for governor. Few expect Jindal to complete his second term. At least, not if he has anything to say about it. That makes Dardenne's re-election effort a de facto race for governor. The only thing it lacks, at least as of a week before qualifying, is a large field.

click to enlarge Democrat Caroline Fayard has hinted she may enter the race for secretary of state.
  • Democrat Caroline Fayard has hinted she may enter the race for secretary of state.

  Dardenne, 57, is a former Baton Rouge state senator who captured the secretary of state's job in 2006 after Fox McKeithen died in office. Dardenne defeated a Democratic colleague, then-state Sen. Francis Heitmeier of Algiers, and former GOP state chair Mike Francis, an arch-conservative businessman from Crowley who questioned Dardenne's conservative bona fides.

  In 2010, Dardenne beat Democrats Caroline Fayard and state Sen. Butch Gautreaux — as well as four more "conservative" Republicans — in the special election for lieutenant governor last year. Once again, his credentials as a "true conservative" were called into question.

  That's the script again this year, only this time it's shaping up as a head-to-head contest between Dardenne and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. And Nungesser already has pulled in a major endorsement — from U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who is making a play for control of the state party.

  Jindal has not issued an endorsement in the lieutenant governor's race. In fact, many suspect he favors Nungesser — but the governor has been quiet on this and other fronts lately. Moreover, Jindal has shown several times since taking office that he has no coattails. Not so for Vitter.

  In addition to flexing his muscle, Vitter is settling an old score. In the wake of the senator's prostitution scandal, Dardenne flirted with running against Vitter. On top of all that, Nungesser has a load of personal money to throw at the race.

click to enlarge Republican Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has no challengers.
  • Republican Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has no challengers.

  For his part, Nungesser makes quite a target his own self. Federal investigators are looking at contracts, FEMA project worksheets and other parish records that were the subject of a scathing state legislative audit last year. The audit concluded that Nungesser may have violated the law when he approved certain contracts for hurricane recovery work without approval of the Plaquemines Parish Council.

  The feds are said to be looking at parish payroll records as well.

  In his defense, Nungesser said at the time that the parish was under a post-Katrina emergency declaration that authorized him to sign the contracts. No doubt Dardenne will use the audit against Nungesser.

  Neither man has been shy about breaking out the long knives.

  Nungesser, 52, was first elected Plaquemines Parish president in 2006 and was re-elected last year. "I feel we need somebody more engaged, with more energy, somebody who's not gonna say, 'That's not my job' when there's a crisis," he says, adding that Dardenne was virtually invisible during the BP oil spill, which gave Nungesser a national profile. "If you care enough, you can do so much more."

click to enlarge Republican Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has no challengers.
  • Republican Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has no challengers.

  Dardenne scoffs at that suggestion. "I was secretary of state when the BP oil spill happened," he says. "I was doing my job as secretary of state. The responsibilities of that job did not require me to jump in front of a TV camera like he did."

  Nungesser's primary theme, like others before him, will be that Dardenne is not a "true conservative." He says Dardenne was not anti-abortion as a state senator and that he voted for taxes — particularly the Stelly tax reform plan of a decade ago. Vitter's endorsement of Nungesser echoed that theme.

  Dardenne's reply: "This is a ploy that's been used by my previous Republican opponents. I've been elected statewide three times. I have refuted those allegations each time. Anyone who knows me knows of my conservative credentials."

  Dardenne took some swipes of his own, noting that Nungesser endorsed him a year ago after initially considering a run for lieutenant governor. Dardenne also pointed out Nungesser's contributions to several high-profile "liberal Democrats," including California's U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

  "I wrote checks to help the lady who was the chair of the Senate committee that could influence the Army Corps of Engineers," Nungesser says. "We needed her to help us. ... I did everything possible to help my parish and my state. That wasn't good for my political career, but I'd do it again to help my parish and my state to get the flood protection that we need."

click to enlarge Republican Jay Dardenne hopes to be re-elected as lieutenant governor.
  • Republican Jay Dardenne hopes to be re-elected as lieutenant governor.

  Regarding his endorsement of Dardenne last year, Nungesser says he backed St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis in the primary, then supported Dardenne against a Democrat. "I backed Jay because I'm a conservative Republican," he says. "But if you look at Jay's voting record, he's not a conservative Republican."

  This race is just warming up. It's going to get a lot hotter by Oct. 22.

The contest for secretary of state promises to be equally intense, with the possibility of a Democratic entry as well. Fayard, who made an impressive show against Dardenne in the race for lieutenant governor in 2010, has hinted she may run against interim incumbent Schedler this year. If she runs, she could be the most — or the only — high-profile Democrat on the statewide ballot.

  Fayard told Gambit last week that she will announce her intentions this week. She offered no hint as to what her decision might be.

click to enlarge House Speaker Jim Tucker is running for secretary of state against incumbent Tom Schedler, a fellow Republican.
  • House Speaker Jim Tucker is running for secretary of state against incumbent Tom Schedler, a fellow Republican.

  Meanwhile, House Speaker Jim Tucker already is running against fellow Republican Schedler. Here again, it didn't take long for the fireworks to begin. The day Tucker announced, Schedler unloaded on the speaker for supporting the ill-fated legislative pay raise of 2008.

  "Not only did he vote for it, but he also was the author and the ringleader of the effort to pass it," Schedler says of Tucker.

  Actually, the bill's author was then-state Sen. Ann Duplessis. When informed of that, Schedler said, "He must have handled it on the House floor."

  Tucker doesn't deny supporting the pay raise, but he notes it was vetoed by Jindal and since then has died down as an issue. Schedler points to at least one recent statewide poll that shows the vast majority of voters would not support lawmakers who voted for the raise.

  "We made a mistake in making it effective for the same term," Tucker says of the raise. "We fixed that by passing a constitutional amendment, and we got no raise. At the end of the day, we heard from our constituents and fixed it. And I said from the beginning that I was not going to take [the raise]. I was always going to give mine to charity."

click to enlarge Incumbent state Treasurer John Kennedy, who won re-election after switching from the Democratic Party to the GOP, has no challengers.
  • Incumbent state Treasurer John Kennedy, who won re-election after switching from the Democratic Party to the GOP, has no challengers.

  Tucker pauses, then adds, "Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

  That's an allusion to the fact that the former senator had two simultaneous homestead exemptions in St. Tammany Parish, which is not legal. The exemptions were the subject of an investigative report on WWL-TV. "I can understand someone getting two exemptions for one year," Tucker says. "That can be an honest mistake. But two or three years in a row?"

  In this contest as well, Vitter has come down against the incumbent. He endorsed Tucker several weeks ago, as did the state sheriffs' association. The state assessors group has endorsed both men.

  Both Tucker and Schedler promise to do more to improve voter turnout and to make the office more user friendly for businesses. Tucker adds a shot at Schedler for closing down museums as a result of a budget cut. Schedler notes that the budget was cut by the Legislature — led in part by Tucker.

click to enlarge Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, a Republican, seems headed for re-election unchallenged.
  • Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, a Republican, seems headed for re-election unchallenged.

If there's another race with the potential for fireworks, it's the one for attorney general. Incumbent Buddy Caldwell won the job in 2007 as a Democrat, then switched parties earlier this year. Even as a Democrat, Caldwell ingratiated himself to Republicans by joining GOP attorneys general from other states in challenging President Obama's health care reforms. Caldwell was the first Democratic AG to do so.

  Former GOP Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao recently announced his plans to run against Caldwell, but since then he made a failed bid for state superintendent of education. Cao did not return Gambit's calls to his office and cellphone.

  Cao's website proclaims, "The people of Louisiana deserve better from our Attorney General. We need a principled leader who will crack down on government malfeasance and white collar crimes, enforce the jurisdiction of the Louisiana Constitution, and who will fight to hold BP fully accountable for the damage they've done to our economy, our environment, and our people."

  Caldwell issued a statement to Gambit noting he is "now in the middle of a very large suit to make sure that BP and other responsible parties properly compensate Louisiana and the citizens of our great state for damages caused by the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill disaster. I am also working to ensure those who manufactured toxic Chinese drywall are held responsible for the damages they have caused to our state."

click to enlarge Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler says he will make the office more user-friendly.
  • Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler says he will make the office more user-friendly.

  Cao put up $100,000 of his own money when he announced but then has shown little in the way of fundraising since. As of late July, Caldwell had nearly $500,000 on hand — and the ability to raise a lot more in a hurry if needed. Caldwell also picked up several key GOP endorsements, including that of Vitter.

  Farther down the statewide ballot, the three other GOP incumbents may have an even easier time getting re-elected than Jindal. As of press time, no one had announced against Treasurer John Kennedy, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon or Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain.

  In many ways, this year's statewide ballot will be a mirror image of what it used to be like for Democrats before the 1970s. Back then, all the action was on the Democratic side. Democrats still have more registered voters than the GOP, at least officially, but voting patterns clearly favor Republicans.

  "The Republicans are entering new territory," Pinsonat says. "They have fewer and fewer Democrats to run against, so they're running against each other — just as Democrats used to do. The term 'RINO' — Republican In Name Only — is now a hot-button campaign issue."

  That, and anything else candidates can throw at one another.

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