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Conditions make Dardenne Senate run unlikely

While some may believe politicians act in strange ways, when it comes to ambitions in seeking office they usually behave quite rationally with fairly accurate cost-benefit calculations. Because of that, do not expect Louisiana’s Sec. of State Jay Dardenne to challenge incumbent fellow Republican and Sen. David Vitter.

Ever since Vitter’s admission of and apology for an unspecified “serious sin” believed linked to utilization of escort services almost a decade ago, Democrats and liberals and some Republicans turned off by Vitter’s brass knuckles political style have dreamed that the incident could take down a previously-invulnerable senator – despite continued evidence that Vitter remains in a good position. He continues to enjoy better approval ratings than either Dardenne or his only serious announced challenger Democrat Rep. Charlie Melancon (and also better than his Democrat counterpart Sen. Mary Landrieu), and polling of matchups against Melancon or Dardenne consistently give him a double-digit lead.

Optimists at Vitter’s demise argue that the approval ratings for both Melancon and Dardenne show a large number of people didn’t know enough about them to rate them, and thus their approval ratings can grow. They also point out that Vitter has not yet polled at least half of the intended vote (even if close); typically, an incumbent is considered safe if he can hit or exceed that mark. It is data such as these, and the fact that he polls slightly better against Melancon than does Vitter, that have caught Dardenne’s attention and gotten him to think about an exploratory committee for a Senate run.

But this attitude of hope for a defeat of Vitter at this point largely is overblown. Landrieu did not poll above the 50 percent level until about seven months before her 2008 reelection and did not consistently stay there until about three months prior. Further, unless respondent ignorance of a candidate is very high (say 75-plus percent), typically as potential voters feel more informed about a candidate they tend to break fairly evenly, because less-informed individuals (as these tend to be) usually will divide among partisan and pseudo- or genuine ideological lines. In other words, approval of Dardenne (or Melancon), with roughly 40 percent of those queried professing they don’t know him at present, is unlikely to exceed by more than a pittance Vitter’s approval ratings (if at all) as more learn about him.

Dardenne also has some other obstacles to overcome that make a contest at this time look less appealing. Running in a closed primary will feature more ideological and conservative voters, because it is restricted only to GOP registrants and only more politically informed and interested people participate in primaries who, in a Republican primary, are more conservative. Vitter has a natural advantage here because his voting record compared to Dardenne’s in the state Legislature was more conservative (and has continued very conservative in Congress) and among more active GOP voters they clearly see him as more conservative.

The only possibility for Dardenne to overcome this would be to spend a lot of money that he doesn’t have. He would have to spend much just to convince Republican primary voters of a conservatism ranking with Vitter’s – but Vitter, with at least $3.9 million available has plenty by which to poke holes in Dardenne’s record. And (with all due respect to my colleague and friend’s assessment), Vitter has little vulnerability with GOP voters whose primary interest is social issues relative to Dardenne because of their past records and Vitter’s contrition. As Louisiana Family Forum Director Gene Mills, whose organization has been a leader in social issue-oriented politics in the state, noted, “Jay has been a fine secretary of state, but he hasn't been as conservative as Sen. Vitter.” He simply is not the candidate to rally social conservatives disaffected with Vitter, which are not many in the first place.

At this point, Dardenne does not begin to approach the financial wherewithal to begin this difficult task. Since state law prohibits use of this state campaign account for federal office (and vice versa), he must start from scratch raising funds anew. And with only about $272,000 in his state account at the end of 2008, if a 2010 Senate nomination challenge ended in defeat, he would have to turn right around and ask for more to hold onto his current office in 2011, so a 2010 run would hamper his money-raising a year later. He also has left it pretty late to ramp up efforts, with the primary only nine months away against a strong opponent, increasing his level of difficulty. Plus, he can’t expect help from many traditional Republican donors who will view his candidacy as something divisive that only could detract from Vitter’s chances against Melancon.

Thus, the exploratory committee idea reveals two things. First, if he finds he can raise money quickly, this may be a signal that, despite the contrary evidence noted above, that there is real sentiment for a Dardenne candidacy that has a decent chance of winning. If not, and second, he can just continue this effort into a more-realistic run against Landrieu in 2014. Therefore, he has little to lose by initiating this effort.

But that’s not the case with an actual attempt. Unless his fundraising experience in the near future is at distinct odds with the evidence above, he will realize his chances are few at knocking off Vitter, potential costs are great, and rationality will kick in with a passing on entering the contest. Barring some unexpected negative aspect about Vitter manifesting in the next few months, Dardenne likely will stay on the sidelines and wait for a more propitious set of circumstances to pursue his political ambitions.


James S said...

Would really hate to see Dardenne oppose vitter. I like Dardenne fine but would vote for Vitter over him in a heartbeat.

Anonymous said...

Well said Sadow. The Vitter scandal has had time to settle and people have moved on. The new thing is Tiger woods, have you heard!!!

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

(Mitch) Landrieu himself knew, however, that one of Gov. Jindal's most pressing political priorities would be to put a Republican in the Lieutenant Governor's post--an absolute necessity before the Governor could pursue his presidential ambitions, Republicans would see this as the golden opportunity to put one of their own at the head of the line of succession. There would be no lack of aspirants, starting with an obvious potential contender,
Secretary of State.