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LA sheriffs' statewide picks losing significance

Still coveted but increasingly marginalized endorsements came from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association for the 2015 statewide elections, illustrating the slow but steady decline the organization has over political contests beyond the local level.

Throughout its history, the group of 64 representing every elected parish sheriff has played a significant role in elections. Sheriffs, because of their law enforcement and tax collecting duties, in parishes without elected chief executives wield the most political clout, and this typically isn’t that shabby even where they compete with a parish president. With an LSA endorsement, a statewide candidate at least will not have a sheriff work against him in a parish, and may have enthusiastic backing there. Thus, in the past candidates worked hard to secure the group’s nod.

They still do. Sen. David Vitter, who received the group’s backing in 2010 for his Senate reelection, lobbied for it to deliver to him early it seal of approval for this fall’s gubernatorial run. Instead, the group deferred by endorsing no one; it takes 33 votes to secure one.
That Vitter did not succeed with this at any time this cycle is not entirely surprising, for two reasons. First, the group almost always supports incumbents and almost never challengers. With no incumbent running, less inertia impelled it to pick one of the nine candidates, although only Vitter, fellow Republicans Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (a past endorsee when running for reelection), and Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards are considered quality contestants.

Second, almost five-eighths of group members call themselves Democrats, more than twice the number of Republicans in the organization. Although some of the long-time Democrats likely really consider themselves Republicans but began their elected careers under their present label and have seen no electoral reason to change, many will stick with their party when it fields a quality candidate that they think has a shot to win. With multiple quality Republicans in the race in addition to Democrat Edwards, likely this fragmented voting enough so that no one could get the simple majority needed.

More interesting are decisions about the down ballot contests. Incumbents Sec. of State Tom Schedler, Treasurer John Kennedy, and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain all face opponents with close to no chance of winning and predictably received the LSA’s blessing.

So did Atty. Gen. Buddy Caldwell, who does face significant opposition from another Republican, endorsed by their party, former Rep. Jeff Landry. But being that the attorney general is the second-most significant office to the LSA and Caldwell has long-standing relationships with many sheriffs to the point the group shows him favorable treatment that got him into a questionable ethical situation, it’s really no surprise it would back the incumbent here.

But the most eye-opening result was a failure to endorse anybody in the Insurance Commissioner’s race, including incumbent Jim Donelon who received the group’s backing in 2011. Facing token opposition, one must wonder what Donelon did to provoke the ire of enough sheriffs that he could not get a simple majority in favor of his endorsement.

Almost as intriguing was the ability of former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser to secure the LSA endorsement for the open lieutenant governor’s spot, an honor he did not capture in 2011. If anything, Nungesser might have gotten on the wrong side of sheriffs when he lobbied against former Plaquemines Sheriff Jiff Hingle’s plans to build a new large prison after the hurricane disasters of 2005; sheriffs enjoy the revenue the state pays them for housing its prisoners and larger facilities can bring in more of that funding. Hingle eventually went to prison over matters related to the building of his parish’s.

However, when in office Nungesser worked closely with sheriffs and the LSA on those occasions inclement weather threatened the very exposed parish. And uncertainty over who may win this job – Nungesser battles another quality Republican in Jefferson Parish President John Young where one of this pair likely will triumph in a runoff against Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden – is of far less importance to sheriffs than concerning the governor’s race. If it picks someone over the eventual winner of the mansion, poisoning that well would carry far more consequences than if that happened in regards to the guy who oversees tourism in the state.

Yet in the final analysis, none of these choices may matter much to the outcomes, if at all. In 2011, unusually although perhaps predictably given his then-power in state government, the only loser and non-incumbent that the group supported was former House Speaker Jim Tucker, whom Schedler narrowly beat. In 2014, given her label and incumbency, it backed Democrat former Sen. Mary Landrieu, who got blown out in her reelection bid.

This is because the group’s power to sway voters at the statewide level continues to diminish as dynamics change, producing a better-educated public with increased access to information about candidates. Where candidates have the money and communication channels and voters have interest in the office, an LSA endorsement like so many others becomes hardly noticed, and any campaign efforts it may make on behalf of a candidate find these overridden by the escalating importance of party and ideology emphasized by candidates, other interest groups, and media communications.

At the local level, with less campaign infrastructure and information available to voters typically seeing less salience to these kinds of contests, sheriffs’ clout still carries weight. But their power remains on a waning course in statewide races, an admission reflected in the LSA unwillingness to wade into the wide-open governor’s contest where it could get burned, as it did in 2003 with its endorsement of former Atty. Gen. Richard Ieyoub who did not even make the runoff (it endorsed Gov. Bobby Jindal in the 2007 open contest when he seemed the likely winner from the start). Thus another link to distinctive past stem-winding Louisiana politicking erodes into insignificance.

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