In politics, sometimes the biggest surprise is no surprise. That was the case when no major Democrat made a last-minute entry into the governor's race — leaving the field exactly as U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the consistent frontrunner, wanted it.
Sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart. In Vitter's case, he's both.
A total of nine candidates filed papers to seek the Governor's Mansion, but only four of them have enough money and political support to garner a significant share of the vote in the Oct. 24 primary. The primary is less than six weeks away, and early voting is less than four weeks away (Oct. 10-17).
Besides Vitter, the major candidates include Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Angelle, Dardenne and Vitter are Republicans; Edwards is the lone major Democrat.
Most polls show Vitter and Edwards leading the field and Angelle within striking distance. Although Dardenne has trailed in recent polls, he has almost all of his $2 million war chest and will pour it into the next six weeks of campaigning.
Most political handicappers agree that Vitter and Edwards can only defeat each other in the Nov. 21 runoff, with Vitter having an edge. Louisiana has leaned decidedly Republican in recent elections, and Vitter enters the formal campaign season with more cash on hand than all his opponents combined. He also has the highest "negative" rating among voters, largely because of his admission in 2007 that he frequented prostitutes while in the U.S. Congress.
Vitter's foes will do all they can to remind voters of the senator's sex scandal, but they will have to overcome Vitter's massive media buys in the final weeks. He literally may be able to drown out, in terms of media advertising, whatever attacks come his way. To make sure he doesn't face too many hostile questions, Vitter will limit his public appearances — if he makes any at all — to venues where the audiences are sure to be friendly. He also may agree to only one live TV debate, probably in the late stages of the primary. It's all part of a plan to minimize his risk.
It's part of a time-honored, successful strategy for Vitter, along with his penchant for ignoring his real opponents and instead firing broadsides at "straw man" adversaries. In his 2010 Senate re-election campaign, he talked past Democrat Charlie Melancon and campaigned against President Barack Obama. This year, he's been running radio ads statewide against New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (for questioning whether the city should keep its Confederate monuments) and television ads against state lawmakers, who he accuses of helping themselves to "perks." Vitter also has the advantage of deep-pocketed "independent" (wink-wink) super PACs attacking Dardenne and Angelle.
As the lone major Democrat, Edwards' task is to unite his party without veering too far to the left. A graduate of West Point with impressive military service credentials and a strong pro-gun, pro-life record, Edwards should be able to get his share of moderate and conservative votes — but can he do that while also generating enthusiasm among black voters, the real base of the Democratic Party?
For their parts, Angelle and Dardenne will split the anti-Vitter vote — of which there is plenty — among Republicans and moderates. As the only Cajun in the contest, Angelle has the potential to lock up a third of the electorate based on geo-politics. He also has tried to make inroads among evangelical voters who may be disenchanted with Vitter over the prostitution scandal.
Other statewide races
Elsewhere on the statewide ballot, voters will choose a lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, insurance commissioner and agriculture commissioner. The contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general are expected to produce the most fireworks.
Four candidates qualified to succeed Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, who is running for governor. They are Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden, Jefferson Parish President John Young, former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and state Sen. Elbert Guillory. In this group, Holden is the only Democrat, but the fault lines go deeper than that.
Holden and Guillory are both African-Americans, though Guillory is a Republican. Young and Nungesser both hail from metro New Orleans, with Young having a larger base in Jefferson Parish but Nungesser having run a strong race before for this office. Early polls show Nungesser and Holden in front, with a runoff likely.
Young, meanwhile, has launched a statewide media campaign that he hopes will propel him past Nungesser.
All observers expect Holden to land one of the runoff spots, which would make him a one-man Get Out The Vote machine in black precincts in the Nov. 21 runoff. If the governor's race comes down to Vitter and Edwards, that will help the Democrats get their vote out.
The other interesting statewide con-test is the race for attorney general. Incumbent Buddy Caldwell, a Republican, failed to get the party's early nod, which went to GOP former Congressman Jeff Landry, a tea party darling.
One other Republican and two little- known Democrats also entered the fray, but this looks like a race between Caldwell and Landry, the latter of whom appears to have support from Vitter. Look for Caldwell to make an issue of Landry's relative lack of experience as an attorney. The former congressman has been a licensed attorney only about 10 years and reportedly has almost no trial experience.
Caldwell, who first won the AG's job in 2007 as a Democrat, switched parties in early 2011 but has managed to alienate much of the GOP establishment. He does have strong ties to the trial lawyer community, but so far that has not translated into a large war chest.
The only surprises on the ballot came at the local level, with convicted felon Derrick Shepherd qualifying for a House seat in Marrero, and former Metairie state Rep. John LaBruzzo switching at the last minute from seeking a seat on the Jefferson Parish Council to running for the state Senate against incumbent state Sen. Conrad Appel. Shepherd appears headed for a court challenge based on a state constitutional prohibition against convicted felons running for state office. He served two years in federal prison for money laundering.
Otherwise, many local incumbent state lawmakers were re-elected without opposition. For example, five incumbent senators whose districts touch Orleans or Jefferson parishes were re-elected without opposition, as were 11 local representatives. Two of the seven Jefferson council races were decided when no one filed to run against incumbent Mark Spears in District 3 or Cynthia Lee-Sheng in one of the two open at-large seats. Also elected without opposition were Assessor Tom Capella and Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich.
Statewide, almost half the Legislature won re-election without opposition. Other incumbents are sure to survive their challenges.
That much legislative retention may bode ill for Vitter if he wins the governor's race — his ads attacking lawmakers for helping themselves to "perks" could come back to haunt him.
Voters may not like the direction of the state in general, but the lack of legislative challengers suggests they like their own lawmakers just fine.