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Other GOP candidates offer what Nelson can't

Now GOP state Rep. Richard Nelson has joined the Louisiana gubernatorial fray. Compared to the other candidates already announced, this one seems premature if not half-baked.

The first-term legislator joined two-term state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, two-term Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, and almost two-term Treas. John Schroder, who also served over two terms in the Legislature, all Republicans, in the contest. He obliquely but quite pithily referred to these competitors as “career politicians” in contrast to him who he alluded to as providing “real solutions.”

Of course, they may appear as careerists in contrast to him, as he has been an elected official for just three years – although in proportional terms, he has served almost a tenth of his life in office, at age 36, whereas Hewitt has served just slightly at seven years out of 64, and by years end he’ll have spent as much proportionally of his life in office as she. And therein lies the problem with his candidacy.

Running the state in adequate or better fashion takes two qualities, one of which is possessing ideas embraced by the public as also reflected in elected representatives. Nelson largely fits the bill here with endorsement of smaller and more efficient government, although his libertarian proposal to legalize marijuana raises serious questions about his judgment although perhaps not necessarily disqualifying.

It's the other quality where Nelson comes up short. He’s been involved in state politics in one form or another for only a few years, which is a severe handicap when it comes to helming the state. Let’s contrast his situation with that of three of the last four governors, who in electoral terms didn’t have that much experience themselves.

Republican Mike Foster had spent only eight years in the state Senate, but that is double Nelson’s time and prior to that had interacted with state officials for many years more in the course of running his business, including some behind-the-scenes politicking. Democrat John Bel Edwards also had just the two terms, but had headed up House Democrats in his second term and came from a family steeped in local electoral politics. The least experienced, Republican Bobby Jindal (who was years younger than Nelson), when he first ran hadn’t been elected to anything but had held high appointive offices at the state level as well as having federal government experience. (Democrat Kathleen Blanco had held elective offices for many years.)

Even last time’s eventual close loser to Edwards, businessman Eddie Rispone, while never having held elective office had decades of experience as a Republican Party activist, building relationships. And a consequence of their prior experiences, the elected trio had extensive experience in building and managing political coalitions, if not large organizations as well. It served them to form winning election campaigns and gave them some skills to commence governing.

Nelson has none of this. He has no leadership experience in the Legislature and a small base with which to start. He’s cranked out some good bills although his grandest ones have failed to pass and only a couple of those that did have more than trivial significance. He has few credentials to commend himself to both voters and activists, especially when compared to the three in the race. Ideas alone, especially when existing candidates articulate most of his already, won’t make it.

Worse, his geographical base of the north shore overlaps that of Schroder and Hewitt, who have far more extensive contacts with area activists. Worst of all, a campaign kitty of just into six figures as the end of 2021 falls woefully short of the amount desperately needed as a rookie to begin to eat into the name recognition and networking advantages enjoyed by the existing trio, and with little chance of achieving that. He doesn’t have a fortune to fall back upon to self-finance like Rispone or an angel to plug him into funding as Jindal had with the patronage of Foster behind him.

At present, establishment Republicans don’t really have a horse to back in this race, with perhaps Schroder being their best but rather imperfect bet. They’d go with him in a heartbeat rather than Nelson, who talks as if he might impinge upon their rent seeking and whose legislation would encourage their employees to show up to work stoned.

This could go two ways. Nelson could end up like the 2014 Senate candidacy of GOP state Rep. Paul Hollis, who also was in his first term and had built a reputation as an ideas guy. Also from the north shore but who had to compete for space there with newcomer Republican Rob Maness, even he had more connections that Nelson, having come from a political family. After a few months, Hollis wisely backed out in an exercise seen as raising in profile for higher office, but something about which he never followed through.

Or, Nelson could follow the path of Maness, who after a short period living in the state upon retiring from the military declared himself the savior non-politician needed for the Senate and disparaged anybody who disagreed as not conservative enough and captive to forces working against the people. He saw the campaign through and got just into a double digit percentage of the vote, whereupon he descended into a carnival sideshow and then obscurity.

Nelson won’t attract much support from conservatives who will see existing candidates as good as, if not better than, him on the issues and much more capable of carrying out their agendas. Neither will he attract much support from non-conservatives few of whom will be turned on by those very issue preferences (perhaps excepting those who want to legalize prostitution). As far as making a difference in state government, he’s probably better off taking his toe from the water prior to qualifying and running for reelection, and chalking up the interlude as a profile-raising exercise for future ambitions.

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