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Upcoming most meaningful Secretary of State race ever?

Even if the Secretary of State is the third-ranking executive official in Louisiana, the citizenry typically has little interest in a position which, under normal circumstances, consists of shuffling a lot of paper (although in these times perhaps more accurately a lot of electronic files) and overseeing many of the states’ museums. But with the hurricane disasters striking in 2005, suddenly this contest has taken on a much greater importance, and not only because it is a special election.

Republicans have two strong candidates in former party chief Mike Francis and current state Sen. Jay Dardenne. Only one Democrat eventually settled on the contest, state Sen. Francis Heitmeier. It’s difficult to come up with three more contrasting major candidates. Francis is known as a bedrock conservative but has no elective experience. Dardenne has reformist credentials but on some social and spending issues deviates from conservatism. Heitmeier is a liberal taxer-and-spender who engages in populist rhetoric and resides in the inner circle of good-old-boy politics that have dragged Louisiana to the bottom of quality-of-life state rankings.

Heitmeier is almost certain to make the general election runoff, given his resources. Dardenne and Francis will fight for the other spot, with the former perhaps having the edge because of superior monetary resources to date (both he and Heitmeier bump up against senatorial term limits next year, but they can use cash raised for that office for this race, and they both have a lot). Regardless of who is in there with Heitmeier, who wins subsequently will tell us much about the state of Louisiana politics going forward.

The potential importance of the office became obvious when current unelected Secretary of State Al Ater committed to a wasteful voter outreach program of information dissemination, and supported relaxation of standards to prevent fraudulent voting and creation of satellite voting centers – all of which cost state taxpayers millions of dollars with very little impact. Francis indicated he opposed all of this while Dardenne voted against loosening standards but for satellite voting and Heitmeier voted to parrot Ater’s waste and lowering of standards.

The contest also serves as a harbinger of 2007 fortunes. With at least a couple of hundred thousand voters still displaced out of state, disproportionately Democrats and black, accentuating the continuing Republican realignment in the state, a GOP winner would confirm an accelerating trend and be only the third instance that a Republican not elected prior as a Democrat won a statewide state-level office as a Republican for an initial term (Gov. Dave Treen – incidentally, an ex-States’ Right partisan – being in 1979 and Suzanne Terrell as the lame duck Elections Commissioner in 1999). Heitmeier is the archetypical officeholder that has plagued Louisiana for much of the twentieth century, so to keep his ilk out of power would send a major signal that the electorate finally is ready to get serious in the 2007 state contests by potentially creating GOP majorities in all branches of state government.

The importance of this office in Louisiana’s electoral history may never have been as high as it will be in this particular race.

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