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19.1.23

Spirited GOP jockeying shouldn't repeat 2015

Now that Republican candidates for Louisiana governor have come like throws from a carnival float, is a repeat of 2015 in the offing as some senior party activists fret?

Last week, after GOP Sen. John Kennedy and GOP Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser announced they would pass on the race, first Republican Treasurer John Schroder threw his hat into the ring followed shortly by Republican state Sen. Sharon Hewitt. With GOP Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry in it for months, that makes for three quality Republican candidates on offer. A fourth, state Rep. Richard Nelson, jumped in earlier this week.

Which was the case in 2015, with Sen. David Vitter, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. Even with Vitter presumed the frontrunner, he made the runoff but behind then-little known Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards, who defeated Vitter heads-up even facing a center-right voting public.

Internecine warfare among the Republicans, culminating with Dardenne supporting Edwards and then becoming his commissioner of administration, party activists blamed for putting an unrepentant liberal at the state’s helm. And here it is 2023 with the same possibility of infighting with Landry the frontrunner and perhaps the other two ready to train fire on him to damage all three and maybe allow another Democrat to slip through.

That’s the hope of Democrats who if they don’t retain the office likely will be relegated to super-minority status in the Legislature and have next to no power in state government. Yet that dream is more like a fantasy, because 2023 differs dramatically from 2015.

Then, Vitter, because of his political style and many years in Washington, while the favorite was in many ways an insurgent to the state’s political establishment, whose members rallied around Dardenne. Angelle was the choice of GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal loyalists, who jockeyed with Vitter for supremacy in the state GOP and, thus increasingly, the state’s political system itself. This arrangement set things up for spirited competition especially in the belief that who emerged triumphant among the trio was a lock to become governor.

That dynamic, if not absent, is decidedly muted this time out. Because he has been in state for the past eight years in office, and in position to directly challenge Edwards’ liberalism, Landry has consolidated more thoroughly support within the GOP. Whereas Vitter picked up a lukewarm endorsement from elected officials here and there with the bulk coming after he made the runoff, Landry already has bagged some high-profile ones and especially and unprecedently early from the state party, as a demonstration of his widespread Republican support. Even though he most fits the insurgent profile, hard work behind the scenes and resolute opposition to the political left made possible by its policy choices – ramped up when Democrats held power unchecked in Washington the past two years – have made Landry popular among party activists and given the conservative base plenty of reason to support him.

Further, as yet establishment Republicans haven’t found a true champion. Hewitt has solid conservative credentials and seems unlikely to front for moderates, and Schroder’s default conservatism although tinged with departures from it from time to time at best make him a very imperfect vessel for party moderates. Gravitating to Nelson would be a desperation move with his proclamations that he’s not a professional politician and seeming hostility to hog trough politics. To date, personality clashes among them and with Landry haven’t been evident and no obvious jockeying for power has frayed relationships, so there’s no bitter struggle for power unless more quality candidates enter. In fact, the only potentially-interested candidate that could fit the bill for this bloc, GOP Rep. Garret Graves, hasn’t clashed with any existing candidate, unlike between Vitter and Jindal.

Finally, Edwards got away with presenting himself, falsely, as a political moderate and even as a fiscal reformer because the public was little aware of his record in office – as the GOP candidates spent few resources exposing him – and he could make uncontested and distorted contrasts between himself and Jindal, even as Jindal wasn’t the ballot. Now, the shoe is on the other foot; whoever Democrats end up shilling almost certainly will have some connection with an Edwards Administration seen by almost all conservatives and many moderates in the electorate as a failure on many levels, from tax increases to declining relative economic fortunes and resulting depopulation to assaults on personal liberty exemplified by his restrictive pandemic policy that did more harm than good to siding with extremists in the left’s war on American culture. No Democrat can sneak up on the electorate this year.

In short, in the 2023 cycle Republicans look less likely to commit a circular firing squad on each other that Democrats can leverage, and Democrats themselves have much reduced ability to exploit that. Having multiple strong candidates of that label, featured in 2015 for the first time in the state’s history, running in a blanket primary shouldn’t prove nearly as harmful to the party’s chances to win the state’s top job.

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