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Long political winter seems in offing for Nungesser, Tucker

Awhile back, I made some observations about the future of major candidates for statewide office, all Republicans, and where they might be in the political universe after the elections if winners. For the winners, being that they did win and potentially thereby take another step in their political careers, the remarks obviously stand. But what of the losers?

The losing duo are Plaquemines Parish Pres. Billy Nungesser, who lost to incumbent Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, and House Speaker Jim Tucker, who lost to incumbent (if prior to it unelected) Sec. of State Tom Schedler. In the previous piece, I noted that a win by either would embolden them to seek higher office eventually, perhaps even to run for governor at the end of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s second term. But they didn’t.

Nungesser could have tried to get there by tapping into the retreating but still present strain of populism that has served as a hallmark of Louisiana’s political culture – but in a conservative version, railing against big government and career politicians.
Dardenne could have been faulted on both grounds, even though the lieutenant governor has next to no policy-making power that, for the job at least, makes those qualities irrelevant. But, with little to go on for this almost-do-nothing position, voters looking for something by which to decide could have gravitated to these kinds of discussions.

The Nungesser campaign tried to steer the contest’s narrative in that direction, but in a fashion that seemed desperate to do so as if trying too hard. Further, Nungesser himself did not seem overly concerned or informed about the few things the office does do; indeed, his rhetoric that did not attack Dardenne on populist grounds but which devoted to himself suggested he would perform in this office things different from how the office actually is conceived constitutionally. Throughout, he gave off the air of a dilettante, much like Dardenne’s last opponent save having prior elective experience, but somebody not to be taken seriously for this particular office.

Insinuations of corruption about Dardenne’s personal life and guilt by association with the good-old-boy network and tax and spend legislators and governors of the past also made Nungesser’s credibility questionable (even as Dardenne himself committed the same error in a different way). Dardenne may be more of a political chameleon and too quick to discard principle for the liking of conservatives, but without question he has served as one of the foremost reformers against the liberal populism that used to infect state government, an heir to the original “young Turks” in the Legislature. In short, the scorched-earth, disembodied campaign of Nungesser that will leave a lasting impression on activists and the mass public alike brings into serious questions whether he can overcome that imprint to the extent of winning any office above that of legislative.

For his part, Tucker ran a much better campaign; his problem was the past. Although almost no polling exists to provide data to confirm this, chances are Tucker’s candidacy largely was doomed from June, 2008, when he visibly rallied the Legislature that would have made  Louisiana’s legislators only the fifth of the states’ to be full-timers in pay, even as the Constitution clearly defined them as part-time. While no legislator got recalled as a result, and, in fact, not a single one who voted for the pay raise was defeated by a challenger this election cycle, Tucker personified the attempt and certainly it can be argued that his slim margin of defeat solely could be chalked up thousands of voters opposing it then remembering his prominence in the saga now.

Tucker compounded the image of an ambitious politician through a series of actions in and around the last session which made too naked his burning desire to stay in office, any office, which also surely repelled some voters and made the bland Schedler look virtuous for precisely that reason that his unassuming political personage conveyed that he actually wasn’t a craven opportunist (even if he had been in the right place at the right time, accepting friend Dardenne’s offer to be his top lieutenant at State, then ascending to the top office when Dardenne captured the lieutenant governorship). It’ll take while for negative memories and impressions to dim about Tucker, but it also will make people forget he once held one of the most powerful positions in state government. This does not leave him much of a political future in state politics (after having been Speaker, it seems highly unlikely he would want to return to the House in a much-reduced role), so he may have to seek out opportunities at the local or federal level even as his political capital bleeds away to make the latter goal perhaps unattainable.

One rose quickly to state prominence as an angry defender of the little guy against large forces. The other coolly and determinedly worked his way into a position of great power but the lifespan of which was limited by the Constitution that forced him to go looking for this fix elsewhere. Neither seems likely in anytime but the distant future to attain the heights they could have achieved by winning their latest races, if ever.

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