Stephanie Grace: Political predictions for 2014

Making predictions is a tricky proposition; I once publicly forecast a slow news year — and indeed, 2005 was pretty uneventful until a little storm called Hurricane Katrina came along.

But it’s a new year in Louisiana politics, so here goes.

It doesn’t take much insight at all to predict that Gov. Bobby Jindal will spend even more time on the road in 2014 and exert yet more of his energy building his national profile. The ironic twist is that this will happen as the national political world focuses more than ever on Louisiana. For that, thank the coming U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu, Republican Bill Cassidy and a handful of lesser-known GOP rivals.

Presidential campaigns may routinely bypass Louisiana and other states without early primaries and with predictable party allegiances, but the Senate race, which could determine which party controls the upper chamber, will bring the national debate over health care and other highly partisan issues to our doorstep — and definitely to our television screens. Spending records will likely be broken. In fact, the SuperPAC “Americans for Prosperity,” backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, kicked off the new year by launching a seven-figure, three week ad buy against Landrieu and fellow vulnerable Democrats in New Hampshire and North Carolina. As for the winner? My only prediction is an election night nail-biter.

Before we get to the fall election, though, another Landrieu will face the voters. Mitch Landrieu is dealing with an unexpectedly aggressive challenge in his quest to win a second term as New Orleans mayor next month from retired Civil District Court Judge Michael Bagneris, who hopes to recreate something like the precarious coalition that helped former Mayor Ray Nagin beat Landrieu in 2006. Bagneris’ best bet is to cobble together support from the left and right — specifically from African-American voters who think Landrieu doesn’t adequately represent the city’s black majority and Republicans who want to hurt the family brand — and also rally those with specific grievances against the mayor.

Landrieu, though, has the power of incumbency, plenty of money and a more optimistic, less divisive message.

He may even get an unlikely assist from Nagin himself, whose federal corruption trial is scheduled to start the week of the election and could remind voters of the buyer’s remorse that helped Landrieu win the job in 2010. If the center holds, as the mayor has said in previous go-rounds, he wins again.

Another safe prediction is that the New Orleans City Council will soon have its first black majority since popular Councilman Oliver Thomas resigned and pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2007. This would be a significant milestone in a long-running story of how the city’s political power balance has shifted in recent years, with an assist from Katrina’s disruption and an aggressive Justice Department crackdown on public corruption that snared a long list of the city’s movers and shakers, and weakened old political organizations. It took a while, but a new generation of black political leaders is starting to emerge.

On the issue front, the new year will hopefully offer more serious, sober-minded discussion about important topics facing Louisiana. Issues likely to remain in the news include the state’s cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry, fair treatment of gay and lesbian residents, Common Core educational standards, higher-ed funding, overly generous tax breaks and long-term financial stability of the newly privatized LSU hospital network.

Yet it will also offer more than its share of political maneuvering. On top of the New Orleans mayor and U.S. Senate races, 2014 will also bring us an open contest to fill Cassidy’s congressional seat. Jockeying has already started for 2015’s big contests, including an open governorship, which will likely bring U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and perhaps even a newly re-elected Mayor Mitch Landrieu into the arena.

Given Jindal’s obvious ambitions, throw early jockeying for the 2016 presidential contest into the mix, too.

Can serious debate coexist with all that politicking? One can always hope. But I’d be lying if I predicted it would.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.