Columns » The State of the State by Jeremy Alford

A Different Season

Candidates will still need money. The problem is many individuals and businesses have already tied up their free cash in the rebuilding efforts.



While state officials have spent recent months devising a plan to hold elections in hurricane-ravaged portions of Louisiana, another appendage of the body politic has been concocting new schemes for the actual campaigning process.

It will certainly be a different picture than what voters and candidates find familiar. Deserted cities will complicate media launches, limited resources will make fundraising difficult, and hordes of displaced absentee voters could forever change the face of get-out-the-vote efforts.

Additionally, by all accounts, there will only be two issues for debate on the table: Katrina and Rita.

Congressional elections are slated for the fall and municipal and mayoral elections should be held in New Orleans no later than April 29. The state is working with the federal government to locate displaced voters and inform them of their rights, but political consultants and other campaign pros are also developing ways to reach out in the storms' aftermath.

Roy Fletcher, a political consultant from Shreveport who has helped elect both Republicans and Democrats, says television campaigns are being completely written out of strategy books for many candidates. In parishes like Orleans and Cameron, many left behind are without sets and those who fled no longer tune in to their old markets.

"I think there will be, in New Orleans particularly, a large focus on alternative medias like the Internet," Fletcher says. "You'll see people using email lists and cell phones and advertising on websites."

Mike Smith of MDSA Strategic Communications in Baton Rouge, a firm that represents mostly Republicans, says even direct mail will fall by the wayside in certain areas. Still, it may be the key in northern Louisiana, where many displaced voters have taken refuge.

"Radio is hot right now and has become a very effective means of communications in areas like Lake Charles and New Orleans," he says. "It's one of the only ways many people are getting information and you're going to see candidates sinking a lot more money into it than they would during a normal campaign."

But to launch any electronic campaign, candidates will still need money. The problem is many individuals and businesses have already tied up their free cash in the rebuilding efforts. That means ­ more than ever ­ candidates will need to be independently wealthy or have substantial war chest ready to rock.

"People are already having problems with this," says Ron Gomez, a former broadcaster and legislator who now owns Edge Communications, an advertising and public relations firm in Lafayette. "Even charities that are not connected to storm relief are having difficulty finding money."

Some incumbents might also run into a bit of trouble when they realize they spent too much out of their own war chests on recovery efforts and find corporate donations have run dry.

"Businesses that left are still in places like Houston and they still don't know if they want to invest in south Louisiana and if it's part of their future," Fletcher says.

With limited cash locally, candidates may have to rely on their message and getting voters to the polls.

"GOTV (get-out-the-vote) and grassroots efforts are going to make or break campaigns in the coming months," Smith says. "With TV out the window and direct mail questionable, some seasoned elected officials are going to find themselves having to go door-to-door. It's going to be a big change for them."

Busing large numbers of voters to the polls on Election Day and paying block captains to oversee critical areas may no longer be options either, says Fletcher.

"Perhaps the get-out-the-vote effort won't even be on Election Day, since there will be a few days of early voting this year," he adds. "You may have some new situations where you reach voters by other means in heavily populated areas."

But those plans are still being developed.

As for issues, Katrina and Rita top the list. How will Louisiana continue to rebuild? How will hurricane protection be approached in the future? Were the right decisions made?

There will be planks and platforms and promises. Nothing new there. But the same singular issues will provide candidates with muddy fodder to throw at each other. Fingers will be pointed and blame will be assigned at will. Voters are expecting it and they're ready to hold someone ­ or several people ­ accountable.

While there are a lot of changes to come as Louisiana's election process gains momentum, the most substantial difference may be the faces we elect to office.

"We're in an environment right now that's like winter in Louisiana when I was growing up and we would go out hog hunting," Fletcher says. "If you're an incumbent right now, believe me, when the elections roll around, there will be a lot of hog hunting."

Add a comment