A special election for state Senate in Baton Rouge has turned out very badly for Gov. Bobby Jindal. The first legislative candidate that he endorsed since winning the governorship in 2007 was roundly defeated by a 66-34 percent margin on Saturday. The governors political foes are crowing at this development, saying it exposes a major chink in his armor. At a minimum, it shows Jindal to have limited coattails and flawed political judgment.
During the March 7 primary, the governor broke his 2007 promise to stay out legislative elections and instead backed businessman Lee Domingue in the all-Republican field of three. The other candidates were Baton Rouge attorney Dan Claitor and business consultant Laurinda Calongne.
Jindals endorsement of Domingue drew fire from some Republican quarters not only because the governor reneged on a major political promise, but also because Domingue contributed a total of $118,000 to Jindals campaign and to a post-election PAC formed to further the governors agenda. Critics said Jindal had become just like the politicians he railed against during his campaign for governor: it was all about the money.
Divisions between supporters of Domingue and his eventual runoff opponent, Claitor, quickly escalated to the level of internecine warfare among Red Stick Republican stalwarts, particularly those with media companies. On one side was Baton Rouge publisher Rolfe McCollister Jr., who publishes the Baton Rouge Business Report and writes a personal (often political) column in print and online. McCollister in recent years has frequently and publicly crossed the line between publishing and politics. He ran for mayor of Baton Rouge in 2000 (Disclosure: Gambit Weekly Baton Rouge endorsed him in that race), served as treasurer of Jindals 2007 campaign for governor, chaired Jindals transition team, offered to pay the $2,500 ethics fine levied against Jindals campaign for failing to disclose a $118,000 in-kind contribution from the Louisiana GOP, and founded Believe In Louisiana, a 527 (independent) political committee whose purpose is to promote Jindals agenda. On the other side was conservative blogger and consultant Pat Bergeron, who publishes LaNewslink and several other political blogs, most of which are links to political stories from across the state with occasional commentary by Bergeron. Coincidentally, in recent months, conservative radio talk show host Moon Griffon also broke with Jindal, calling the governor a tax and spend liberal and changing his party affiliation from Republican to no party.
At times, the online missives between McCollister and Bergeron seemed to overshadow the runoff between Domingue and Claitor. It had as much to do with Jindal reversing himself and getting involved in an all-Republican primary as it did with the clash of two large political-media egos. Which brings us back to the race.
In the primary, Jindal endorsed Domingue, as did McCollisters publication. Bergeron and others squawked about Jindal breaking his promise to stay out of legislative politics particularly after Jindal avoided some Republican-versus-Democrat runoffs in November 2007, right after his victory in the governors race (when his popularity was at its zenith). At the same time, the Baton Rouge Advocate ran several stories in February and early March exposing Domingues checkered past (he had a nasty bankruptcy in Houston and allegedly stiffed BRs noted Pennington family in a Red Stick business deal). Add to that the demographics of Senate District 16 voters there are upscale, well educated and include many LSU alumni, faculty and supporters who dont much care for Jindals proposed massive cuts to higher education in the next fiscal year and youve got a recipe for political disaster for Bobby Jindal.
Theres one more element that didnt work for Jindal, politically: Domingue, like Jindal, allies himself with the Religious Right faction of the GOP, as opposed to Claitor, who is a more traditional economic conservative Republican. As one observer put it, The voters in that district are educated and sophisticated, and they dont care for the Flat Earthers mentality or political agenda.
In the primary, Claitor ran first with 39 percent, followed by Domingue with 34 percent and Calongne with 27 percent. Calongne threw her support to Claitor in the runoff, just as things really started heating up between McCollister and Bergeron and causing trouble for Jindal.
Saturdays results show that Domingue, despite robo-calls from Jindal in the final days of the runoff and shrill columns by McCollister, failed to improve his showing in the primary by even the smallest of margins. He got the same 34 percent in both outings. Virtually all of Colongnes votes went to Claitor in the runoff.
This was not some run-of-the-mill election. As Bergeron noted in a Sunday morning blog post, This is the district where Bobby Jindal and Rolfe McCollister both grew up and lived most of their lives! Bergerons post also shows he can be as shrill as McCollister. He warns Jindal, [Y]ou had better stay home and tend to the job we are paying you to do and quit flitting about the country acting all important. YOU CAN'T BE ELECTED PRESIDENT IF YOU CAN'T GET RE-ELECTED GOVERNOR. Do you understand that now! [sic]
No doubt Jindal will shrug off the loss and somehow claim it was really a win because the GOP held onto the seat (in traditional Republican territory). As the 37-year-old governor continues to learn, however, every political setback, no matter how small, only whets the appetite of ones adversaries. With the legislative session set to begin April 27, and with Jindal pressing ahead with painful cuts to health care and higher education, his next showdown wont be long in coming.