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Bernhard return should worry Democrats, Dardenne

As speculated, what if the impending sale of Baton Rouge’s Shaw Group frees the inner politician of its founder and former chairman of Louisiana’s Democrats’ Jim Bernhard? For one presumed future gubernatorial aspirant and the new party leadership it comes as most unwelcome news.

Bernhard will make at least $55 million off the deal if it goes through as planned, retiring at its consummation, even a portion of which would make him more than competitive in any political contest in the state. Some believe he might get an early start and run for his area’s Public Service Commission open seat. Businessman Ed Roy and state Rep. Erich Ponti, both Republicans, have announced their intentions to contest the seat for which qualifying beings in two weeks.

The thought is that Bernhard, who ran a Fortune 500 company whose products were subject to PSC regulation, would be seen as a natural fit for voters in a contest that downplays ideology that could offset his Democrat affiliation. That kind of contest also could mute statements from his brief past experience overseeing state Democrats, where his lack of political experience showed with so many articulated illusions about what both major parties represented – if he chooses to run and as a Democrat; he was a self-proclaimed independent prior to switching apparently at the behest of friend former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Provided that he does continue to throw in his lot with the state’s minority party, the thinking is that a couple of years of PSC service would remove the lightweight aura and obviate the recent past dismal political showings of (in particular one) wealthy candidates for statewide office without prior elective experience. Yet the move carries risk. With only 19 percent of the district having had registered black voters at the time it was redistricted into being, he doesn’t have much of a base, and for less-involved voters candidate’s party identification will mean everything in this contest where there will be a disproportionate number of them, working against any Democrat. With national elections dominating the ballot, it’s no certainty he could even make the general election runoff, where then more-involved voters disproportionately would show up, which tends to work against the turnout characteristics of his base.

Losing this relatively minor contest would impair considerably any future political career and also demographics actually work out better for him running at the statewide level, with almost a third of all registered voters being black creating a base that almost would assure him of a runoff spot. Then the question becomes whether he can peel off the approximately one quarter of the white vote needed to win. He only could do so by presenting the same unsystematic moderate face as he appeared to support during his months as party chairman.

Even if he does run to the right, more likely than not that won’t be enough to defeat a conservative Republican candidate. The fact is, the Democrat label is at an all-time low in the state and the current party leadership seems bound to continue that trend, which will scare away too many moderate conservatives to come out on top (unless he comes off as a GOP clone, but then voting majorities will think to go with the genuine article). However, his presence in the contest may have a big impact on who ends up getting elected.

Using as examples of some thought to be interested in the job when Gov. Bobby Jindal hits his term limit, populists on the right may like state Treasurer John Kennedy, conservatives may gravitate towards state Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, and moderate conservatives could go for Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. Throw in Bernhard striving to the center, and clearly he slices off the most votes from Dardenne, probably putting one of the more conservative Republicans into a runoff against him and therefore making that GOP survivor the next governor.

For this reason, expect the state party apparatus, now comprised of officers much further to the left than Bernhard has indicated in the past he would be, at best to feel lukewarm about his candidacy. Unless they are willing to put power above ideology and feel he has a decent shot of winning, to them his place in the race increases the chances of a more conservative GOP winner emerging than if they (tacitly) support the Republican closest to the center. Otherwise, they might go to the lengths of finding a very liberal sacrificial lamb (which also might serve the purpose of giving more representation to blacks in the party, now its majority, by running a prominent black politician) in order to siphon votes from Bernhard that he would get absent a credible leftist candidate, thereby keeping him out of a runoff and giving them a chance to rally around Dardenne.

So Dardenne and the liberal leadership of state Democrats should be concerned if Bernhard parlays separation from the new form of his company and significant increase in walking around cash into a run for the state’s highest office. His effect on who, not being him, gets elected probably is the most impact he will have on state politics.

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