"Does a man's reach exceed his grasp? Depends on what he reaches for."
Make no mistake: Gov. Bobby Jindal is the Batman of the fall ballot and all of Louisiana is his Gotham. Jindal even has his Alfred in Timmy Teepell, one of the brightest GOP minds in the nation, back on the trail this go around, not as campaign manager but as strategist and consultant. Jindal also has a pile of cash that's as big as all other statewide candidates' war chests combined — just like Bruce Wayne's fortune — and it buys him lots of cool stuff like commercials, donor databases and interns.
They're both men of mystery, Jindal and Batman. They share ties to DC — the Hill and the comics publisher, that is — but the analogy starts to fade after that. The governor wouldn't stand a chance against Killer Croc, and Batman would have little chance against Bayou state lawmakers.
So why all the Batman references? It's about the only way to make this year's race for governor interesting — and less irrelevant than the comings and goings of ex-Gov. Edwin Edwards. To help you dive into the narrative, here's a primer.
The Incumbent: Bobby Jindal wants a second term, and he's likely to get it. He rode into office on a wave of unprecedented support from Christian voters and rural areas in north Louisiana, a blueprint crafted by Teepell that remains in high gear today. Although his name is no longer mentioned in connection with the 2012 presidential election, Jindal's national ambitions cannot be ignored. Recent weeks have seen him raising money in Minnesota and New York.
The Challenger: Tara Hollis is a Democrat from Haynesville. Until recently, she was employed as a full-time schoolteacher. She stepped out of the classroom to make as serious a run as she can against Jindal. Without other viable options, Democrats have warmed to Hollis, who may have a future in politics after all this is over. She's also another example — in addition to New Orleans attorney Caroline Fayard and governor-turned-mentor Kathleen Blanco — of why women may yet play a big role in crafting the New Louisiana Democratic Party.
The Dabbler: State Sen. Rob Marionneaux of Livonia, another Dem, has been dipping his toes in the gubernatorial waters for months. He even commissioned a poll, which showed what everyone else already knew: that Jindal is kind of like Batman — flawed but popular. At press time, Marionneaux had still not announced his intentions. Most expect him not to make the race, which virtually hands Jindal a second term.
In this story line, money is the root of all power, and Jindal stands alone in that category. According to his July 14 campaign finance report, the governor has nearly $9 million in the bank, $2 million of which he raised this year. That's a daunting figure. If, as expected, Jindal fails to draw a more serious challenger by the time qualifying closes at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, it will be difficult for him to spend even half that amount between then and election day, Oct. 22. Even if he spends $1 million a week, he'd still have about $3 million left at the end of the day.
Hollis has a more interesting financial narrative. She has raised only $3,500 thus far. Talk about David and Goliath.
In late July, she reported to the state Ethics Administration a mere $950 in the bank. So far she has spent only $2,400, but Hollis has benefited from much more in free media exposure. Blanco, for her part, has been shaking the bushes to help Hollis raise money in recent weeks.
Marionneaux had about $209,000 in his war chest in late April (the last reporting date for state lawmakers). He raised $36,000 last year and spent $15,000.
Jindal's campaign bought up TV time statewide last month for the governor's latest commercial. It focuses on job creation, which is the theme of Jindal's re-election campaign. The new ad is a 30-second spot called "Spirit of Louisiana." It highlights major economic developments in practically every corner of the state.
Hollis is taking a different approach. She's taking Jindal to task on his "gold standard in ethics and transparency" — a reference to the governor's package of ethics and transparency bills that seemed to tighten the screws on everyone but the governor. In addition, she's targeting the state's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. Recent media reports have shown that many participants have been saddled with substandard work while others continue to wait on checks. A contractor connected to the program has been arrested for fraud. Administration officials have taken responsibility for oversights and contend the problems are being addressed. If Jindal had an opponent with real money and a taste for blood, this scandal could have cost him. But with no money to get her message out, Hollis is not likely to land any body blows on Jindal.
The governor's ongoing efforts to privatize some state services (such as the Office of Group Benefits) have likewise given Hollis a line of attack, but that topic, while important to state workers, strikes most voters as a yawner.
The story line behind this narrative is ... no story.
At least one political expert says that's no surprise.
"The first and most important explanation for the lack of competition for the office of governor is that Bobby Jindal has done a decent job overall, as rated by the voters," says Pearson Cross, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. "A corollary of this is that Bobby Jindal is a Republican governor in a state that has become majority Republican. ... Although some of the bloom is off the rose, as revealed by recent polls, there is no major impetus to replace Bobby Jindal because of his performance in office."
Cross adds that Jindal is "adept at making sure the public knows about his successes and the areas where Louisiana is progressing."
A second explanation for Jindal's lack of opposition, says Cross, is money. "Twenty or 30 years ago it was still possible to run for governor with a regional base, either in New Orleans, Acadiana, or north Louisiana," Cross says. "Politicians who had only regional visibility could expect to gain the necessary visibility (and stature) through the campaign process and the informal networks that traditionally elected governors — sheriffs' associations, courthouse gangs, and the Democratic Party organizations.
"Today, politicians with only regional bases have difficulty running successfully for governor because what it takes to get elected has changed. Instead of an appeal to various groups and elites, today the gubernatorial hopeful has to have the money to make big media buys in all of the eight markets in Louisiana. Thus, a statewide campaign for a relative unknown has an entry fee of perhaps $2 million just to purchase credibility and name recognition with no guarantee of electoral success."
Viewing the current landscape through that prism, Cross says there are no candidates with a viable chance of unseating Jindal.
"Looking down the road," he says, "the race to succeed Bobby Jindal is being waged now, with the jockeying for the most important and visible down-ticket positions. Thus, the real action in this year's election is for the lieutenant governor's seat and the secretary of state's seat."
If there's no need for a runoff after the Oct. 22 primary, several peripheral questions will soon be answered. Political insiders already are wondering if Teepell will return as Jindal's chief of staff. Teepell took a temporary leave earlier this year to run Republican campaigns in other states, and his performance only boosted demand for his services. When he left this time, he cleaned out his office completely and has yet to commit to being part of the next Jindal administration. Sources say Teepell could move to Washington to join the GOP's professional campaign staff, which will focus on U.S. Senate races in 2012. From there, he could make even more friends for his protege, Bobby Jindal.
And then there's Jindal.
As soon as the votes are counted, speculation will begin as to his next move. Will he be asked to be part of a GOP ticket next year? If not, but if a Republican wins the White House, will he land a Cabinet job?
And if nothing comes his way in 2012, will he run against U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2014?
Many say that third option is the most likely scenario. But that means he'll have to serve another three years as governor — and a lot could happen in those three years.
Batman has remained popular through the generations, but few Louisiana governors have been able to keep voters happy through two terms.
Whatever the future holds for Bobby Jindal, his story will remain a page-turner — even if the current plot line has more "YAWN!" than "POW!"
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.