Qualifying for the Louisiana governor's race is now less than six months away, but the field of candidates is taking shape slowly. Polls continue to show Democratic incumbent Kathleen Blanco mortally wounded in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, giving rise to talk that she might not -- or should not -- even seek a second term.
Despite the polls and the talk, Blanco insists she is running. And as long as she so insists, most Democrats shy away from openly challenging her. Behind the scenes, however, Blanco's party is hoping she'll bow out gracefully -- and soon.
At the recent Washington Mardi Gras Ball, former U.S. Sen. John Breaux spoke freely about his interest in the race -- after hosting a sparsely attended fundraiser for The Governess. Breaux's comments were couched in terms of stepping up only if Blanco decides before April 30 not to seek re-election. If Breaux runs, he would likely become the consensus Democrat.
"I would not run against Kathleen Blanco," Breaux told Gambit Weekly last week. "If she decides not to run, I would then be very interested in running. ... But, a decision must be made fairly quickly. After the legislative session, it will be too late."
Elsewhere, only one Democrat of any consequence, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier, speaks publicly about running against Blanco. Other Democrats who might be drawn to the race -- if Blanco drops out and Breaux does not run -- include Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, state Treasurer John Kennedy, Congressman Charlie Melancon, former Congressman Chris John and Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard.
The Democrats' chief objective is to defeat Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal of Kenner, whom Blanco beat in 2003 but who consistently trounces her in all post-Katrina polls. Other Republican challengers include state Sen. Walter Boasso of Arabi, who formally announced last week, and businessman John Georges, who is expected to announce formally in the months ahead. Both Boasso and Georges are wealthy businessmen who can self-finance their campaigns.
For now, Blanco wears her game face. She has $3 million in her campaign fund and a score to settle with detractors in both parties. Blanco adds that once she begins telling her side of the story, her fortunes will improve.
Indeed, Blanco's history shows that she is a survivor. Less than 10 days before her bruising 2003 runoff against Jindal, she trailed by nearly 10 points in the polls. An 11th-hour TV blitz attacking Jindal, combined with a personal appeal to women voters, catapulted Blanco to a stunning 52-48 percent victory. It also helped that Jindal refused to respond in kind to her media attacks.
But that was before Katrina. Since the storm, all bets are off.
According to every independent voter survey since Katrina, Blanco has fallen from grace among all sectors of the electorate, including her Democratic base -- women, blacks and Cajuns. Jindal consistently leads her by 20 points or more statewide, and he leads her by varying margins in every corner of the state.
The latest independent survey, taken in January by Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research (SMOR), showed Jindal leading Blanco by a margin of 58.5 percent to 34.7 percent statewide. He beat her by a similar margin among women in that same poll.
"She has not moved much in the last 17 months," SMOR's Bernie Pinsonat says of Blanco's standing since Hurricane Katrina. "She fares even worse in the New Orleans area, where voters appear to be very upset with her because of the Road Home program."
Indeed, in southeast Louisiana -- including the hard-hit parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Tammany, plus Jefferson and several river parishes -- Jindal trounced Blanco in the SMOR poll by a margin of more than 3-1 -- 72.3 percent to 21.7 percent.
Those numbers, combined with the displacement of at least 100,000 black voters after Katrina, are giving Democratic politicos fits and spurring persistent rumors that Blanco will see the handwriting on the wall and drop out. She continues to deny such talk, maintaining that she is in the race to stay.
Still, the talk continues. In fact, several sources close to Blanco confide that she will make up her mind once and for all before the Legislature goes into session on April 30, and most are betting she will opt out.
Last week, The Independent, a Lafayette alternative weekly, published as its cover story an open letter to Blanco by editor Scott Jordan urging her not to run. Citing the "Road Home debacle" and her depressed poll numbers, Jordan pleaded: "Please don't run for re-election. Drop out of the race -- and sooner rather than later. It's the best thing for our state's future and reputation."
Describing her campaign as "futile," Jordan concluded: "It's time to face political reality. The voter demographics that propelled you to the governor's office are gone. Your New Orleans voting base is displaced, longtime Baton Rouge and Acadiana supporters are disillusioned, and Democratic challenger Foster Campbell and Republican challenger Bobby Jindal are siphoning off your north Louisiana voters."
Granted, it would be unprecedented for a governor to bow out in response to a newspaper editorial, even one from her hometown. All the same, the whispers among Democratic faithful that she might not run have grown to a roar that she ought not to make the race.
Moreover, Breaux's potential candidacy has iced her already tepid fundraising efforts -- and a new campaign finance law, passed on her watch, will bar her from raising funds during the upcoming legislative session. That means her $3 million war chest, which did not grow much during 2006, won't grow at all until July. Meanwhile, Jindal continues to raise money at a frenetic pace, while fellow Republicans Boasso and Georges are independently wealthy.
All of those factors combine to give Democratic powerbrokers a sense of urgency. And for good reason. As long as Blanco stays in the race, the outcome seems fairly predictable: Jindal will win in a rout.
In fairness to Blanco, it must be noted that Louisiana elections -- particularly those for governor -- rarely follow the early form. The one recent exception, ironically, was Blanco's race in 2003. She started out running first or second in every poll, but virtually every pundit (and all of her then-opponents) predicted that she would fade in the late stages of the primary. Instead, she narrowly held onto a second-place finish behind Jindal and then went on to win the runoff.
Blanco was the first front-runner to win an open governor's race since Dave Treen won in 1979. In steeling herself for a re-election campaign, Blanco must know that she is once again swimming against the tide, and not just because of her falling fortunes post-Katrina. Since 1979, only one governor has won a second consecutive term: Mike Foster, who, coincidentally, is Jindal's political godfather.
To make matters worse, Katrina is not the biggest of Blanco's problems. Rather, her handling of the recovery -- more specifically, her Road Home program -- has proved to be a modern-day albatross that her opponents will hang around her neck at every turn.
And to think that Republicans initially squawked about her putting her name on the program for political gain. Going forward, look for the GOP to remind everyone about "Governor Blanco's Road Home program."
What happens, then, if Blanco decides not to run? Who might step up to the plate for the Democrats?
The list seems to get longer by the day, but most agree that Breaux would forestall just about every foreseeable Democratic challenger if he runs.
Talk of Breaux's potential candidacy has been all the rage lately, although some question whether he could legally make the race. The Louisiana Constitution requires a candidate for governor to be a "citizen" of the state for the preceding five years. Breaux registered to vote in Maryland in late 2005, and he was soon thereafter removed from the voting rolls in Acadia Parish. Breaux and the GOP are said to have unleashed a brigade of lawyers to research the issue, which means it will likely wind up in court at some point. Louisiana law is thin on this subject, which probably weighs in Breaux's favor -- "citizenship" means what the Supreme Court says it means, and it's doubtful the High Court would knock John Breaux out of a race for governor.
Or, the Legislature could define it in the upcoming session, with the same result.
Assuming Breaux does run, he will be a formidable candidate. He will cut across all geographic and even some party lines, having been a solid conservative in the Congress and Senate, a friend to the energy industry and a proven consensus builder. If voters want a governor who can get things done here and in Washington, Breaux would be the front-runner.
Don't expect Jindal and other Republicans to just roll over, however. A favorable legal ruling as to his "citizenship" notwithstanding, Breaux would be pounded for registering to vote in Maryland less than 90 days after Katrina and Rita pounded Louisiana. Look for the GOP spin machine to showcase his home on the Eastern Shore to boot (remember those ads about Mary Landrieu's house in D.C. during the last Senate race?).
The prospect of a nasty campaign raises another question with regard to Breaux: because he has not had a tough race since he beat Henson Moore in the 1986 U.S. Senate contest, is he up for the coming slug-fest? He says he is, but since his 1986 race, a slew of new voters have come onto the rolls, and they have never had to choose between Breaux and a credible foe. He'll need to get in fighting shape if he's serious about running for governor.
Jindal supporters claim they have polls showing their man beating Breaux handily. Maybe so, but that race has yet to be run. Moreover, Breaux overcame a 20-point deficit to beat Moore in their 1986 contest. And this time, he won't be outspent 3-to-1.
If Breaux doesn't (or can't) run, the Democratic floodgates could open. The most likely first-tier candidates would include Melancon, Landrieu and Kennedy. After that, the ranks include Chris John, Bernhard and anybody else willing to roll the dice.
There is some speculation that Breaux's flirtation with the race is part of an elaborate ruse to keep a spot open for Congressman Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville or Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. So far, Melancon has been the most emphatic in saying he will not run.
A withdrawal by Blanco and Breaux would almost certainly ignite a serious "draft Melancon" movement. In the eyes of many, Melancon has everything a successful Democrat needs in Louisiana: conservative credentials (at least conservative enough that he cannot be branded a liberal, which the GOP tried and failed to do last November); experience in the private sector; lots of government know-how; excellent campaign skills; and, above all, a Cajun base.
In statewide elections, the Cajun vote is the swing vote. Cajuns are generally conservative and often Republican-leaning, but if one of their own runs as a Democrat and is a good candidate, they will not hesitate to vote Democratic. Blanco herself proved that in 2003. If Melancon runs, he would stand to get the bulk of Cajun votes and could probably get the rest of the Democratic base (blacks, trial lawyers, labor) -- or at least enough of it to make the runoff.
The trick is to get him to run. Melancon is said to be very happy in Congress and is considered a rising Beltway star with good committee assignments. Most of all, friends say he does not see himself as a governor. He prefers legislating and policymaking. If he sticks with that decision, many Democrats will look to Landrieu.
Landrieu hasn't said anything publicly, but it's an open secret that he doesn't want to end his career as lieutenant governor. The younger brother of Louisiana's senior U.S. Senator is certainly ambitious enough (and, perhaps, self-assured enough) to jump in quickly if Blanco drops out. His main strength is that he is a familiar name and has already run well statewide. But his name is also a weakness. Many voters (especially Republicans) will see him as an advance man for his sister Mary's re-election in November 2008, and some folks can't wait to take her out. That will make him an inviting target.
That happened in Landrieu's race for mayor of New Orleans, when the city's most conservative whites held their noses and voted for the embattled incumbent, Ray Nagin, just to drive a dagger into somebody named Landrieu. Imagine how much worse it would be if Landrieu were to run statewide. In fact, his candidacy could pose a threat to Mary's re-election chances a year later.
If Landrieu had a different last name with the same rsum, he might fare better. He's a great campaigner, although he wimped out in the runoff of the New Orleans mayor's race by not attacking Nagin, who was certainly ripe for criticism. Presumably, Landrieu wouldn't have that problem against a Republican or another white Democrat in the race for governor. Then again, he may look wounded after losing to Nagin, who himself looked like the most vulnerable mayor in history at this time last year.
Treasurer John Kennedy is another Democrat with a statewide base and higher ambitions.
Kennedy's biggest problem these days is that he seems unable to decide who or what he is or what he wants to be. Rumors have been swirling for months that he was about to switch to the GOP, particularly after he and U.S. Sen. David Vitter wound up singing the same anti-Blanco tunes in recent months. Many see Kennedy as the GOP's best chance to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2008 -- and he's still a Democrat. As talk of Blanco possibly not running gathers momentum, he may opt to remain a Democrat and run for governor.
As treasurer, Kennedy has shown himself to be a tough-minded reformer. He tackled difficult, even volatile issues head-on as chair of the Bond Commission -- taking on Senate President Don Hines and forcing Blanco's hand against Hines' controversial sugar syrup mill project. He also criticized Blanco's agenda in the special legislative session, which was a bust.
But Kennedy has not fared well outside the comfort zone of his treasurer's office. As a statewide candidate in the 2004 U.S. Senate race, he fizzled. Badly. He was the only non-right-winger, yet he failed to get enough votes to cause a runoff. He looked awful in his ads and generally didn't come off well in televised debates.
Every election is a unique event, however, and Kennedy is a perennial darling of reformers. He's smart, honest and articulate on many issues. Like Blanco, he may have to make a difficult decision very soon.
Once you get beyond Blanco, Breaux, Melancon, Landrieu and Kennedy, the Democratic ranks thin quickly. Two names most frequently mentioned are those of former Congressman Chris John of Crowley and Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard.
John, who also ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, is sort of John Kennedy Lite. Like Kennedy, he doesn't set the campaign trail on fire. Unlike Kennedy, he's not seen as someone who stays awake at night thinking about complex issues. When he ran for U.S. Senate, the closest he came to having a message was, "You see that bridge? My daddy built that bridge ..."
Bernard is another would-be contender who can't quite figure out whether he's fish or fowl. Is he one of the world's great businessmen, sitting atop a Fortune 500 company? Or is he a maverick new kind of politician out to change the paradigm in Louisiana?
Bernhard, who co-chaired Blanco's transition team, is a classic example of a business guy who gets a taste of politics at one point in his life (it's worse when this happens during mid-life), enjoys a quick but very intense feeling of success at it, and then thinks he's got it all figured out -- so he decides to make a career change. That's what happened when Bernhard briefly took over as chair of the state Democratic Party -- until Katrina sent his company hundreds of millions in state and federal contracts.
Now he's said to be poised to dive back into the political stream. As a big, rich businessman looking for Democratic votes, Bernhard reminds one of Buddy Leach -- but with a prettier face, a softer message and better PR. Then again, if you peel back the veneer, the first thing you see is Cleo Fields -- again with his hand in the pocket of the richest guy in the race.
And that's supposed to make business folks comfortable with a Democrat?
The Democrat likely to have the most trouble attracting business votes is Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a fire-breathing populist from Bossier who apparently sees himself as a modern-day Huey Long. More likely, he'll be the new Buddy Leach, minus the money. Campbell has one burning issue: taxing the oil companies. Sound familiar?
Campbell's ace in the hole is that he may be the only candidate -- Democrat or Republican -- from anywhere north of Highway 190. On the other hand, close to two-thirds of the state's voters live south of the old highway, and every one of them will swear that Campbell talks funny.
For now, the smart money is betting on Breaux, which means a lot of money is staying put and not going into anybody else's campaign coffers -- while everyone, including Breaux, waits for Blanco to decide once and for all whether she's going to the big dance one more time or going home to Lafayette.
- Terri Fensel
- In steeling herself for a re-election campaign, Gov. Kathleen Blanco must know that she is swimming against the tide. Since 1979, only one governor has won a second consecutive term: Mike Foster.
- Former U.S. Sen. John Breaux would be the consensus Democrat if he runs. "I would not run against Kathleen Blanco," Breaux says. "If she decides not to run, I would then be very interested in running."
- Cheryl Gerber
- The latest independent survey showed Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal leading Kathleen Blanco by a margin of 58.5 percent to 34.7 percent statewide.
- In the eyes of many, Congressman Charlie Melancon has everything a successful Democrat needs in Louisiana: conservative credentials, experience in the private sector, excellent campaign skills and a Cajun base.
- Cheryl Gerber
- If John Breaux passes on the governor's race, many Democrats will look to Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, but he would be an inviting target for conservatives who are gunning for his sister, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
- Karron Clark
- State Treasurer John Kennedy has a statewide base and credentials as a reformer, but Democrats may be troubled by his recent flirtations with the GOP.
- Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell's ace in the hole is that he may be the only candidate from anywhere north of Highway 190. The bad news is that only a third of the state's voters live there.
- The name of former Congressman Chris John of Crowley also has been tossed around in Democrat circles.
- State Sen. Walter Boasso of Arabi (left) and businessman John Georges are two Republicans who are wealthy enough to finance their own campaigns. Each hopes to cut into Bobby Jindal's early lead in the polls.