Democrats struggling to find formidable challenger
At Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s campaign headquarters in downtown Baton Rouge, a dry-erase board charts the progress of volunteers as the weeks tick down to the Oct. 22 primary.
The board shows volunteers have knocked on nearly 1 million doors, made more than 60,000 phone calls and posted nearly 30,000 signs.
“I already know how I’m going to vote. I hope you guys know how you’re going to vote,” Jindal told a roomful of college-age volunteers manning the phone lines in his campaign headquarters on a recent weekday.
The question is whether there will be any well-financed candidate other than Jindal to vote for in the governor’s race on Election Day.
A flurry of defections to the Republican Party has left U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu as the Democratic party’s sole statewide-elected official after more than a century of Democratic domination in Louisiana.
With less than three months remaining before the primary, Democrats have yet to put forth a formidable challenger to Jindal.
Political experts said the Democrats need someone like former Gov. Kathleen Blanco or a multimillionaire with the financial resources and name recognition to mount an expensive advertising blitz in the 12-week sprint leading up to the primary.
“It’s very late. I don’t want to say too late. It depends on the candidate,” said Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish. Campbell, a Democrat, ran against Jindal for governor in 2007.
Others said Jindal can rest easily despite slipping job performance ratings and a disappointing legislative session.
“It’s over,” said LSU communications professor Bob Mann, a former aide to Blanco. “Absent a monumental collapse sparked by scandal or illness, there’s no reason Jindal should lose sleep at night.”
Haynesville schoolteacher and Democrat Tara Hollis is touring the state, but had less than $1,000 in the bank compared to Jindal’s nearly $9 million on July 14. She also is uncertain whether she will quit the classroom in a few weeks to dedicate herself to the campaign trail.
State Sen. Rob Marionneaux, D-Grosse Tete, is flirting with the possibility of putting his name on the ballot. He had more than $200,000 on hand when he filed an April 20 campaign finance report for the Iberville Parish sheriff’s race.
Yet, political analysts suggest that the weight of some baggage Marionneaux brings would quickly sink him.
Shreveport-based political analyst Elliott Stonecipher said Marionneaux is hampered by ethics complaints regarding his work as an attorney in legal matters involving the state.
Stonecipher said Blanco would be the stronger candidate against Jindal.
“Kathleen can give him a good race, but not a winning one,” Stonecipher said. “No, Marionneaux cannot.”
At the Louisiana Democratic Party’s July 23 Thomas Jefferson-Andrew Jackson Dinner, the Rev. Chris Andrews made a reference to the party’s plight in his opening prayer.
“The Democrats need to pray these days,” Andrews said.
Hollis, a political novice, was on hand to mingle with the smartly dressed crowd. She set up a table stacked with bumper stickers and fliers in the hallway outside the banquet room. Marionneaux did not make an appearance.
The person everyone wanted to meet was Blanco, who came to collect a lifetime achievement award.
People wanting to speak to the former governor created a bottleneck outside the banquet room.
Organizers finally asked Blanco to move to her table in hopes of convincing others to do the same.
Three years after leaving office, Blanco had a $2 million campaign war chest at the end of last year and is delivering speeches across the state.
Insiders in the Democratic and Republican parties say Blanco, almost alone, has the name recognition and the war chest to mount a credible campaign even though she declined to run for re-election after sharp criticism, which has since softened, of her handling of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Blanco’s remarks to the Democratic Party’s dinner had the fire of a campaign stump speech with plenty of jabs at Jindal and his administration. But Blanco said privately that her focus most recently has been on battling a rare form of eye cancer.
Blanco said she doubts she will run against Jindal.
“(It’s) hard to imagine I would jump in,” Blanco said.
Another person who could throw a lot of money into a race against Jindal is New Orleans businessman John Georges.
He recently tossed $10 million into a campaign fund for an unspecified statewide office.
He withdrew the money prior to filing his July 25 report, but it suggests he has the personal resources to spend a lot on a campaign.
Georges said it is doubtful that he will run for governor despite taking the time to speak to leaders in the Republican and the Democratic parties.
Acknowledging it’s a political cliché, he said one should never say never. “Right now, I have no plans to run. But I am having meetings with people,” Georges said.
Over the years, Georges has spent millions of dollars running in races that he did not win, including the governor’s race in 2007.
It is unclear which party he would embrace should he place his name on the ballot next to Jindal’s.
Georges was a Republican for 29 years, ran for governor without a party affiliation, then switched to Democrat to run for New Orleans mayor.
“Not interested in party label,” Georges said.
Georges spent $11.97 million in the 2007 gubernatorial race and attracted 186,682 votes, or 14 percent of those voting. Jindal spent $11.1 million and won outright with 699,275 votes.
State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge and chairman of the House Black Caucus, said she is feeling no pressure to find a candidate who can capture the black vote and give a decent showing for the Democrats.
Black people represent 30 percent of the registered voters in Louisiana.
Smith said voters do want an alternative to Jindal, but money is an issue, as is the stigma of having “Democrat” behind a candidate’s name.
“Edwin Edwards would probably win,” she said, referring to the former Democratic governor who is enjoying his recent release from federal prison.
Future of Democrats
Longtime Democratic political operative Randal Johnson said there is overwhelming support for Jindal and his agenda throughout the state.
Blanco had her opportunity to serve and chose not to seek re-election, said Johnson, now a lobbyist.
He said Marionneaux is a great orator but would be challenged to do the footwork needed over the next 80 days to travel the state to meet voters.
Johnson said the governor’s office is too important for Democrats to scramble just to throw someone on the ballot.
“Does it mean the end of the Democratic Party if they don’t field a candidate?” Johnson asked. “No, I don’t think so.”
Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat said it would only take several million dollars to put a dent in Jindal’s re-election efforts.
He said a candidate would not have to match what Jindal has in the bank because there is so little time left to spend the money.
Pinsonat said the only thing Democrats can achieve at this point is to ensure that Jindal does not win by a landslide despite the fact that the governor no longer is as popular as he once was.
Many of the governor’s initiatives failed this past session, notably a New Orleans college merger and the sale of some prisons to fill gaps in the state budget. He also drew criticism for proposing to use dollars that probably will be available only once for expenses that must be met year after year.
An April survey by Pinsonat’s Southern Media and Opinion Research of 600 Louisiana voters showed the governor is more vulnerable than he was in the past.
Jindal’s positive job performance rating this spring was 55 percent. In April 2009, his approval rating was nearly 68 percent.
Pinsonat said Jindal’s popularity dipped when he proposed the merger of the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans.
Still, he said, enough white voters think the governor is doing a good job to push him into a second term.
Pinsonat said he is not counting on Jindal running unopposed, especially when a well-spoken, lower-tax-pushing Marionneaux is eyeing the race.
“You can’t sit there and say ￔI don’t think anyone will run.’ You just never know. Maybe Blanco will run. Maybe Marionneaux will run. Maybe they’ll find someone at the last minute,” he said.
Pinsonat predicts that the most votes a Democrat can pull is 45 percent.
The Secretary of State’s Office lists about 2,829,000 voters across Louisiana. Of those, nearly 50 percent are Democrats and 27 percent are Republicans.
Despite Democratic majority in registered voters, Republicans hold all state-level elected posts, most congressional seats and hold majorities in both the Louisiana House and state Senate.
Avoiding the hare’s fate
For his part, Jindal is taking a lesson from the fable of the tortoise and the hare, in which an overconfident hare rested and allowed the slower tortoise to win. Jindal is not napping.
The governor is putting himself before voters by traveling the state to make economic development announcements. In addition to his campaign headquarters, he has six regional offices and thousands of volunteers. His chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, took a leave of absence to advise the campaign.
Jindal has at least $8.8 million to spend on his re-election efforts. He has been raising money - crisscrossing the nation and the state to do so - almost since taking the oath of office on the State Capitol steps more than three years ago.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Jindal said.
Teepell said Jindal aggressively raised funds not to scare off opponents but to ensure adequate resources were in place to run a competitive campaign.
The governor pointed out to his volunteers that the George Bush-Al Gore matchup was won by a handful of votes.
Jindal said he always wants to be able to say that he worked as hard as he could.
“We’ve got a lot of weeks and a lot of days ahead of us, but every one of those calls is important,” he said.
To emphasize his point, Jindal admonished the volunteers to finish with their business before listening to his pep talk.
“Don’t hang up on anybody,” he said.