Dardenne, a Republican, and Kennedy, a Democrat, both look like shoo-ins for re-election. Despite the efforts of each one's party to oppose the other, neither man faces any real opposition yet. Both are flush with cash and polling strong.
But, in next year's election cycle -- when U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu comes up for re-election -- Dardenne and Kennedy's fates may collide.
In an election year dominated by gubernatorial politics and legislative battles over how to spend surplus billions, contests down the ballot are bound to escape intense media scrutiny. Nonetheless, the stakes remain high for statewide incumbents, most of whom are Democrats, as politicos and power brokers start to make their moves. Two statewide Democrats who appear to be in the cross hairs are Attorney General Charles Foti and Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom. Both have aroused a lot of anger, but for different reasons -- Foti for arresting a doctor and two nurses on murder charges stemming from patient care in New Orleans during Katrina, and Odom for a slew of corruption charges that he just can't seem to shake.
Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, in the wake of his defeat in the New Orleans mayoral race, could face off against a burgeoning Christian Right vote in the form of state Rep. Gary Beard, a Baton Rouge Republican who has built a legislative record on all the right (read: right wing) GOP issues. Despite his loss to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Landrieu is seen as a heavy favorite against Beard.
Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, the other statewide GOP officeholder (along with Dardenne), could be vulnerable -- if someone with a big war chest wants what may be the most thankless job in state government these days. Donelon was elected in a low-turnout special election last September.
No matter what, most statewide officials can expect some kind of opposition. If there are any exceptions, they could be Dardenne and Kennedy, who have managed to stay above the fray -- at least for now.
Dardenne cultivated an image of torchbearer on ethics reform during his time in the state Senate, having come to the secretary of state post through last year's special election. He has placed a newfound emphasis on the cultural side of the office, eliminating museum fees and adding new exhibits, which could open up a new base of artsy Democrats for the Baton Rouge conservative. From a practical standpoint, he also made friends with thousands of election commissioners through policy changes on the elections side of the office.
The formula is a cozy one for the state GOP, which is beginning to recognize the value of Dardenne's stock. In fact, he has even caught the glare of national Republicans looking to next year's Senate race. "I think Jay's seat is a safe seat for us," says James Quinn, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party. "And part of that is the great job he has already done with the office. He's a good fundraiser, he's in touch with the party and he is very alert to what is going on. I would be surprised if anyone even tries to run against him."_
Officially, democrats don't buy that party line, but so far they haven't been able to offer up a viable alternative. Danny Ford, executive director of the state Democratic Party, says it's too early to call a winner. He adds there might be a big name opposing Dardenne in the fall. "We're still talking to a variety of individuals, but we're not prepared to release any names. It's a whole different ball game from the last election. The dynamics of the race will be different, and turnout will be higher."
Kennedy is running for re-election as well, but he's presenting voters with a different Democrat than the one they saw four years ago. During his most recent term, Kennedy became the state's unofficial watchdog, taking his own party's governor to task on a regular basis over fiscal matters. Some wanted him to run for governor this year, but he opted out. A few pundits speculate, and he doesn't deny, that he's mulling a potential run for the U.S. Senate next year against incumbent Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat. As all of this talk bubbled to the surface, Kennedy also flirted publicly with the idea of switching parties. For now, he remains a Democrat, which is the safest play for his own re-election in the fall.
How does all that sit with state Democratic leaders?
Ford says no one has tried to appease Kennedy, and the party plans to back him "100 percent" for re-election. While there's little face-to-face, the party does keep in contact with Kennedy's staff. "Kennedy is running again and we are behind him," Ford says. "The treasurer is a Democrat and a member of our party. He's an advocate of good government, and we're proud to have him as part of the team."
Quinn says he hasn't had any direct conversations with Kennedy about party affiliations, either, but he admits a switch could be on the horizon. Maybe that's why he couldn't offer "one single name" of a Republican willing to take on Kennedy this year. "We've all heard the same rumors and read the same stories," Quinn says. "I think John will ultimately do what is right for him. I think he has considered it and he is keeping his options open."
If Kennedy has indeed considered changing his "D" to "R," then it certainly must give him pause to hear that national Republicans have courted Dardenne to run against Landrieu next year. So, while they may be safe this year, he and Dardenne could be eye-to-eye in 2008. "Mary Landrieu is the top targeted Democrat next year, and there is going to be a lot of interest in that race," Ford says. "They all know Jay by reputation and, naturally, he has been included in those discussions. But we still have a year to go, and anything could happen."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.