Of course, having been no statewide office GOP incumbents in the post-Reconstruction era until former Gov. Dave Treen’s win in 1979, it’s only been in the 21st century where there has been any real opportunities to have Republicans elected to these offices, much less run for reelection and have a strong challenger from the party emerge. The only other time this has happened was in 2011 when Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne fended off former Plaquemines Parish Pres. Billy Nungesser, with the party issuing no endorsement on that occasion.
Nonetheless, to pick a challenger of the party over one of its incumbents should raise eyebrows regardless of how many opportunities have existed for that to happen. Yet if you happen to be a conservative, there’s no real mystery to why it happened this time.
In Landry’s one term in Congress, he compiled a solid, even exceptional, conservative record. Caldwell ran as a Democrat to win in 2007, but as a Republican for reelection in 2011. In both instances, he followed the standard playbook successful Democrats have used since the tide began turning against them this millennium – appear to oppose corruption and promote a conservative record on social issues in the hopes it overshadows liberalism on everything else.
So in establishing credentials to win the support of his new party’s identifiers, Caldwell can point to some in these realms. He fought a backdoor method to force Louisiana to accept same sex marriage, and also the front door attempt. He also went after alleged favoritism in the state handing out a huge contract. He even showed his office’s opposition to the excesses of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by suing to overturn parts of it on two occasions.
But in that instance, his ideological slip showed when he expressed more confidence in government running insurance markets than the private sector. And on a number of other issues dealing with the marketplace and commerce, he has shown a definite preference against commercial interests, if not conceptualizing them as piñatas to burst with a good whack, while trying to create arrangements (and attempting to expand these) to steer more state funds for this work to trial lawyers.
Most notoriously, he ended up on the losing side of a case against a drug manufacturer brought on the basis of jackpot justice because he wanted to increase the potential size of the award, and another where he allowed to go forward a wretchedly bad contingency contract by a local government that tried with outside counsel to sue oil companies for environmental damage that got laughed out of court. Then there’s Caldwell’s refusal to back the rule of law when necessary and politicization of the office, providing much concern for the conservatives that make up the majority of state GOP leaders.
Defenders of Caldwell, relative to Landry (there is another minor candidate in the contest with prosecutorial experience), may point to his having been a district attorney prior to becoming attorney general, while Landry has no prosecutorial experience (a point Caldwell’s campaign made in response to the announcement), but that background isn’t an important attribute of an attorney general. They may prosecute only in civil matters, or when invited by district attorneys or the judiciary, and they have plenty of assistants who can do that. More important is the judgment and temperament of the officer, in choosing which civil cases the state ought to bring and in issuing opinions when requested on the law (unless these are overridden by administrative or statutory law). Landry’s limited government views that stress enforcing existing law as opposed to using the office simultaneously to shake down business and enrich trial lawyers seems much more agreeable to Republicans.
It was poor judgment in picking cases to try that doomed Caldwell’s predecessor in his reelection bid, but Caldwell’s choices with these may be even more egregiously bad. Undoubtedly this prompted the Louisiana GOP to take its unprecedented step, and increases Landry’s decent chance to knock him off.