The end of the annual legislative session brought several major developments in the autumn statewide elections. As expected, Senate President John Hainkel bowed out of the governor's race. Meanwhile, state Rep. Melinda Schwegmann, who is running for lieutenant governor (a job she once held), surprised many by switching to the Republican Party.
Hainkel's announcement will have minimal impact. He wasn't getting much support, financially or in the polls. His withdrawal does, however, give a psychological boost to the GOP because it leaves only four (down from the initial seven) Republicans in that contest.
The Republicans remaining are state Rep. Hunt Downer of Houma, former state Department of Health and Hospitals chief Bobby Jindal, former Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle and Public Service Commissioner Jay Blossman of St. Tammany. If they all go to the post, there's still a chance that two Democrats could lead the field in the Oct. 4 open primary and shut out the GOP. That prospect weighs heavily on the minds of Republican mullahs.
For now, Jindal leads his fellow Republicans with roughly 10 percent of the overall vote -- but he trails two Democrats, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Attorney General Richard Ieyoub. In the first survey taken after withdrawals by former Gov. Dave Treen and state Sen. Ken Hollis, most of the erstwhile GOP candidates' support went to "undecided." That's not unusual. That survey, by the way, anticipated Hainkel's withdrawal and did not include him.
Voters remain largely unfazed by the governor's race. They're still waiting for somebody to wake them up.
The most interesting recent development was Schwegmann's decision to bolt to the GOP. She's now the third major Republican in the lieutenant governor's race, whereas the Democrats have only one contender. Here again, the GOP has the problem of too many entries -- but the problem is worse in this race because there's only one major Democrat, state Rep. Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans. Besides Schwegmann, the Republicans include attorney Stephen Rue of Kenner and Baton Rouge civic leader Kirt Bennett, the only African American in the race.
Schwegmann's move probably affects Rue the most. He has lots of money, but she has a ton of residual name recognition from her four years as lieutenant governor (1992-96). While Rue's own survey shows him in the lead, he hasn't attracted much visible support among leading Republicans, nor has he demonstrated much ability to raise money other than his own. He's a tireless and telegenic campaigner, however, so he should never be discounted.
The task for Rue, Bennett and Schwegmann will be to establish themselves among the GOP faithful. Rue, as a trial lawyer, has a philosophical hurdle to clear. Schwegmann once had an enviable base among blacks and women -- as a Democrat -- but she may have shed that base by switching parties. Can she make up lost ground among mainstream Republicans? Will she be able to raise enough money to get her message out? In fact, what will her message be, after six years representing a heavily Democratic district in the Legislature? As a former lieutenant governor who served honorably, she stands out in her ability to talk substantively about the office.
Bennett, if he can raise enough money, poses a threat to Landrieu's base among black voters. Unless an African American jumps into the governor's race (which isn't likely), Bennett will be the leading black standard bearer in statewide races -- and possibly the only one. Will African-American voters look past the "R" behind his name on the ballot to back him over Landrieu?
Landrieu has been frustrated by the media's collective yawn in response to his list of nearly 500 major supporters statewide. A closer look shows that he probably has more big-name Republican support than his GOP rivals, which is noteworthy. His Republican supporters include local business folks like Henry Shane, Gary Solomon (who is Landrieu's finance chair), David Voelker and Rick Rees. He also has support from businessman and GOP financier James Davison of Ruston, former Slidell Mayor Sam Caruso, former state Sen. Tom Casey of New Orleans, and former interim New Orleans Councilman Howell Crosby, who, coincidentally, was a major backer of Suzanne Haik-Terrell against Landrieu's sister in last year's hotly contested U.S. Senate race.
Truly, every election is a unique event, and in any given race, anything can happen.