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Strain deferral signaling Vitter in for governor's race?

In a sign that perhaps Sen. David Vitter has come to an affirmative decision that he’ll make a gubernatorial run in 2015, Agriculture Secretary Mike Strain announced he would seek reelection to that post.

Strain posted through social media the decision, significant because he was the only prominent principled or traditional conservative candidate putatively in the contest. Others at the state level who have announced interest in the job to succeed term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal represent different political bases – Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne seems positioned to appeal to moderates on the right and independents, Treasurer John Kennedy for years has spouted issue preferences that appeal to populist conservatives, and state Rep. John Bel Edwards reliably parrots lines that liberal Democrats love.

As far as this group went, Strain could find room to try to capture that constituency with the only potential competition from state Sen. Gerald Long, who also expressed some interest. But Long raised hardly any money in 2012 although he retains almost $300,000 in the bank. Strain did much better, raising over $200,000 and left with nearly $400,000 in the same time period, so it seems highly unlikely that Long, if the distant kinsman of two past governors even still contemplates making the race (at one time saying a crucial factor in deciding to go for it was his ability to raise money), chased him out of it.

While Strain hints that prosaic reasons – consultations with family and friends – influenced him to turn down the chance, just as if not more likely it’s perhaps that word is trickling to him about Vitter’s interest in the job, from operatives and potential donors. Vitter has demonstrated the greatest ability to unite the principled and populist wings of Louisiana conservatives, so other possible competitors have every reason to abandon their plans if they become certain he’ll formally enter the fray.

And signs continue to emerge suggesting he will. In May he announced a fundraiser for a political action committee that seems poised to be able to contribute to a campaign of his either at the federal or state level. If he were to run, this would be the way to get money committed now for the effort, because state law (R.S. 18:1505.2(P)) requires that he open a separate account for any state office campaign as candidates are prohibited from commingling funds raised for federal office pursuit. If he wished not to announce intentions this far out, which would require establishment of a separate account, for strategic reasons but retain the ability to raise money and especially in a format that could go either way – for if he had no interest in the job he simply could raise the money through his own federal account – this works.

Strain’s deferral suggests a realization that principled conservative support largely seems headed Vitter’s way to prompt his desisting. The question becomes whether Dardenne or Kennedy become too pessimistic about their chances and instead fall back to their current jobs. Kennedy possibly may if he perceives a Vitter formal entrance as eminent, because Vitter can peel off a portion of Kennedy’s populist base, but Dardenne seems in it to stay, his spot already having drawn a (repeat) challenger and with more room to try to maneuver, unless a moderate Democrat (if one can be found) emerges that would squeeze him out. (Perhaps the likes of state Rep. Walt Leger, who has one of the least liberal yet not conservative voting records in the Legislature of Democrats and who has positioned himself on running for statewide office, might qualify on this account.)

Strain has good conservative credentials and would have served ably in the top office, and of the mentioned state officeholder candidates for conservatives only Long matches him on the issues and in consistency. But much as was six years ago concerning Jindal, this contest will revolve around Vitter and is his to lose if he wants it. Political calculations of all others must use him as a reference, and thus Strain’s bowing out tells us Vitter may be that much closer to going all in.

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