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Decision again looms for Kennedy's political future

At this time last year, Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy contemplated whether he should leverage an assumedly successful reelection into a run for the Senate in 2016 or to take a stab at running for governor this year. Now at this time this year, the Republican contemplates whether he should leverage a successful reelection into a run for the Senate next year or to take a stab at running for governor in 2019.

Facing a crowded field of Republicans, then Kennedy had no guarantee that he could outpace it, especially with Sen. David Vitter leading it. By contrast, no likely Senate competitors had enough positive statewide exposure as did he, or nearly as much money at his disposal. In the end, Kennedy deferred by endorsing Vitter, the favorite who if won then could appoint his own successor to fill out the term. Kennedy very well might have scored that bonus as among major Republicans only he and Vitter had built political careers trying to fuse populism and conservatism.

Then the voters pulled a fast one and sent Vitter down to defeat at the hands of Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards, which caused Vitter to keep his office in play by announcing he would not run for reelection. As Kennedy stood a decent chance of becoming the Senate placeholder, a new job that would have brought electoral benefits, this actually slightly degraded his chances for next fall. But as a survey showed, commissioned by the political action committee formed to support him, he still retains the advantage over names anticipated to run that could win.

Yet the more intriguing possibility of him running for governor in four years may end up overriding his interest in the Senate. Many factors push him in this direction.

In some ways, the next four years gives him the perfect perch to make 2019 like 2007. In 2003, current Gov. Bobby Jindal had come off a close defeat that marked him as a formidable future candidate. Even as he easily won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives the following year, he made no secret of his desire to run for governor again, occasionally lobbing criticism at the policies of the winner former Gov. Kathleen Blanco over the next four years.

Blanco made it easy with policies that started left of center but increasingly slid further left, and sealed the deal to limit herself to one term by her mishandling of the hurricane disasters of 2005. Jindal faced no serious competition in rolling to victory to succeed her.

A similar environment awaits the state, except the disasters waiting to happen involve the state’s fiscal climate. Edwards already has set himself up for failure by pledging hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending and, along with insisting that little in the way of spending cuts or right-sizing government needs pursuing, will have to employ direct and indirect tax increases on the citizenry that will fail to overcome chronic budgetary problems due to the depressive economic effects they will trigger. That is, if he even can get enough of these hikes passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature, with any inability to do so marking him as another kind of failure.

And Kennedy would be there in perfect position to pick up the pieces. Even if some of his ideas for this have come out half-baked if not distortions of the truth, no state politician has argued as vocally for reductions in spending than has he for so long, providing a perfect contrast to the tax-and-spend agenda of Edwards. Also, his career has featured inconsistency in issue preferences with an eye towards adopting these so as to capture the public’s position, although more often than not with them underpinned by a general conservatism, giving him the experience to cast himself as Edwards’ foil. Finally, because of his occasional populist appeals, better than any other Republican he can eat into the incoming governor’s electoral base while retaining GOP voter support.

Age also may pay a role in which office to choose. He will turn 65 around the time of next fall’s election, meaning the end of two Senate terms will have him at 77. Two gubernatorial terms would end a year earlier and involve far less travel and strain, although he would become the oldest governor ever elected initially.

In short, Kennedy by 2019 like Jindal in 2007 could stand across the gubernatorial landscape as a Colossus among Republicans. His name recognition, finances available, and credentials no other GOP candidate could approach. Unless Edwards immediately begins governing against type, even as of right now Kennedy would stand a good chance of defeating him.

Keep in mind as well that Kennedy cannot transfer well his critiques of state government policy into a Senate campaign, where he lacks credentialing on national policy, especially in contrast to sitting House members planning to run. Additionally, in making his third Senate run in the past dozen years and right after winning reelection (as he did his previous two attempts) will make some voters feel him too overtly ambitious, which they will equate with less interest in the people’s genuine agenda.

Kennedy would be competitive in a Senate race right now against a few capable opponents but any of whom has quality enough to defeat him. Yet he likely would face no serious opposition except a wounded incumbent four years from now should he defer a Senate race and run for governor (doing both, if he should lose next year, would weaken him considerably by draining funds and eliminating any aura of inevitability he might have developed, besides augmenting the public perception of over-ambitiousness).

However, that’s three years from now and anything can happen; just ask the prohibitive gubernatorial favorite of last year, Vitter. It’s a lot to consider.

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