Assumptions are dangerous in governor’s race
With 2018’s session-palooza out of the way (hopefully), Gov. John Bel Edwards can begin focusing on re-election. He’s not on the ballot until next fall, but for all practical purposes, Edwards has been in campaign mode since his last bid ended in 2015. Such is the nonstop nature of modern elections, and such are the fundraising requirements for any serious candidate.
Pretty soon you’ll begin to see key staffers fall back from their roles in the Edwards Administration, on the government side, to assume positions in the re-election campaign. Reminders about what the governor believes he has accomplished and still has left to do will become rather pointed. You may even see more outreach from Edwards’ campaign or one of its affiliated committees or partners sooner than later.
Given the activity to come and the basic fact that Edwards, a Deep South Democrat, is the incumbent, it’s surprising to hear some Republicans refer to the race that will host his re-election bid as if it were an open seat. The party’s banner-wavers are lining up to run like there’s a term- or retirement-related vacancy. So far, successful clear-the-field tactics have been difficult to identify.
Even if you truly believe Edwards’ election was a fluke—the result of him facing a wounded opponent in the runoff—and that opportunities for policy achievements this term have come and gone, you’d still be a fool to count the governor out. His first year fundraising haul broke recent gubernatorial records, national Democrats will be standing firmly by his side, and Edwards, quite frankly, is a tenacious street fighter. He was born with fire in his belly.
That said, Edwards’ supporters should prepare for the fight of their lives. Boosters who were onboard for round one may not return for the sequel, as is sometimes the case. More importantly, there’s still the political equivalent to an eternity (well, not really) left to play out in this term. Time equals exposure and exposure equals risk, however minimal, for the Edwards campaign. Like their counterparts in D.C., national Republicans are also going to show up armed to the teeth with resources. They’ve got some fire in the belly, too.
All of these burning stomachs should make us wonder why there hasn’t been more of a public effort on the GOP side to coalesce around a single candidate. There are a few acceptable reasons.
For starters, the biggest names hanging around the race without appearing to run belong to men—U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Congressman Ralph Abraham—who don’t exactly cotton to ultimatums and forceful directives. John Kennedy and Ralph Abraham are going to do what John Kennedy and Ralph Abraham want to do, and not a moment sooner than they’re ready.
For both Kennedy and Abraham, running for governor is a free shot, meaning they could keep their federal gigs even if they appear on the state ballot next year and lose. That has left some to assume that the men are in unless otherwise publicly stated, but that can make for an uncomfortable assumption. By not flinching roughly a year from qualifying, Kennedy and Abraham, should they decide not to run, are keeping other credible candidates on the bench as the clock runs down.
While keeping high-profile names in the developing media coverage of the governor’s race is a solid public relations move, it does little to serve the party’s election aims. (Or perhaps it will eventually. After all, plying Louisiana politics is akin to chess, not checkers. Maybe there’s a broader strategy.)
Secondly, the exits from public life taken by former Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter during the last term of state government left the Louisiana Republican Party without its two sometimes warring figureheads. Plenty of folks could have stepped up in the meantime to plug the leadership gap, which may be part of the problem. There are just too many darn Republicans in lead offices. On the other hand, it’s a true group effort at the GOP these days.
The governor’s race, which is slowly crawling out of its infancy, likewise has too many wildcards. Stephen Waguespack, the president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry; state Sens. Brett Allain and Sharon Hewitt; state House Majority Leader Lance Harris; and
Attorney General Jeff Landry, among others, have all been mentioned as potential contenders by the state’s leading political reporters.
Of course, when it comes to elections in Louisiana, the law of the land is actually the law of jungle — as in our unique jungle primary system. All of the candidates will be tossed in the same primary ring, regardless of party, and the two top vote-getters will advance to the runoff. As it did in 2015, this system offers some benefits to Edwards if he remains the only legitimate Democrat in the race. His current hold on the electorate, should it stay undivided, is enough to get him to the follow-up ballot.
Not to be excluded from the conversation is the Louisiana Democratic Party, which has some work to do as well. Registration statistics are proof enough that the party is changing in the Bayou State, but diehard activists seem split over which direction the donkey train should be pointed.
Without stripping the situation of its nuance and complexities, there are at least two lines of thought: a more progressive party that is urban-centric or a more centrist party that won’t neglect rural Democrats.
Edwards’ brand fits more snugly into the latter, although his political team hasn’t made any aggressive appeals to install changes at the state party. If the team does want to try to force some adjustments, not that there have been any indications, it’ll happen soon.
The primary election for governor is slated for Oct. 12, 2019, with a runoff as needed to be scheduled for Nov. 13, 2019.