A curious turn of events happened on the way to the landslide primary victories that were expected on August 28, 2010. The Third Congressional Republican Primary, the Second Congressional Democratic Primary, and the US Senate GOP primary suddenly turned into competitive contests--to varying degrees admittedly. Enough, though, that in each case, a real possibility exists that at one or more of these elections will advance to an October 2nd runoff, balloting that occurs on the same day as the contenders for the open Lt. Governor's post present themselves before the electorate. The unexpected injection of those surging voters, in any of the three cases, could prove to be good news for the conservative standard-bearer amongst the candidates seeking the State's number two job in October.
While several recent polls have put Secretary of State Jay Dardenne into a firm frontrunner's position in the Lt. Gubernatorial race, that has not stopped the conservative grassroots across the state from, in general, embracing GOP State Chairman Roger Villere as their candidate. Last week, Villere won the endorsement of the Tea Party of Lafayette, only the latest of the state's conservative activist organizations to embrace him.
(Villere had earned the Tea Party of Louisiana endorsement nearly a month previous.)
As the head of the Republican Party of Louisiana, Villere had been well positioned to present himself as a contender in an election that has stayed, for the most part, below the media's radar. GOP ward leaders and LFRW members had been the earliest backers of the Metairie Florist's bid as early as his announcement in the Spring. However, Villere substantially built on that conservative grassroots support through a tactical decision that helped generate real Tea Party enthusiasm for the candidacy. He called for Louisiana to abolish the Personal Income Tax.
His argument, that both the state's neighbors, Texas and Florida, have flourished in the absence of such a tax was a political given, but unlike some other candidates, Villere put forward a realistic plan to phase out that income tax. The GOP Chair has spoken about Louisiana adopting a constitutional spending limitation similar to Colorado's TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) that limits increases in the state budget to the rate of inflation and/or increases in population.
"If Louisiana had only kept spending to the rate of inflation since the early 1990's," Villere explained to The Louisiana Weekly in an interview, "we would not only not have a deficit today, we would not need the income tax. our other forms of taxation would pay for the entire state budget without the need for an income tax."
"Imagine what that would have done for our economy over the last decade," he continued. "Businesses that have relocated to Texas or Florida would have considered our state...We need to do something drastic to prove to the world that we are open for business. Simply controlling spending would allow us to phase out the income tax for everyone."
It is an argument that played very well in conservative circles and among Tea Party activists. US Senate Candidates like Kentucky's Rand Paul and Nevada's Sharron Angele have demonstrated the pull that the Tea Parties can inspire throughout the GOP electorate against establishment Republicans as well as the Democratic opposition.
It is a trend that Villere has hoped would continue into the Pelican State's special election this year to replace Lt Gov. (turned Orleans Mayor) Mitch Landrieu. Villere's challenge has been two fold, to earn a runoff slot in an election that boasts of four serious Republican candidates, and be close enough in the primary vote that he has a realistic chance to exit the runoff victorious.
The safe bet for months among political prognosticators has been that Secretary of State Jay Dardenne was assured of a runoff slot. He enjoys considerable establishment support and, more importantly, a lead in the polls.
Two weeks ago, a survey by Southern Media and Opinion Research puts Dardenne at first place 25.8 percent support and well known musician SammyKershaw in second place with 14.6 percent, followed by Villere, St. Tammany Parish GOP President Kevin Davis and former Morgan City Democratic State Senator “Butch” Gautreaux.
There are eight candidates in the race in total, five Republicans and three Democrats, severely dividing the overall vote. In fact, SMOR's Bernie Pinsonat noted that his poll had a 40.2% undecided margin, meaning
the Lt. Governor's race remains an open contest, depending on large part on which voters turnout to the polls.
That was particularly proven true on a poll released on Friday by Ron Faucheux's Clarus Research Group that showed an even tighter contest with Dardenne at 20% Kershaw at 15%, and Davis, Villere, and Gautreaux all tied within the statistical margin of error at 7%,4%, and 2% respectively. The critical element of the poll, though, was that the quotient of undecided voters has risen to 47%. In other words, the race remains wide open.
In a simple name recognition contest, assuming uniform statewide turnout, undecided vote would probably break equally to Dardenne and either Kershaw or likely a Democrat such as Gautreaux, depending if musical noterity or the "D" behind one's name proves a stronger draw to the undecided Democratic electorate seeking a standard-bearer. Each scenario favors an easy victory for the Secretary of State.
However, that is all probability unlikely to happen.
Uniform turnout assumes there are no other major elections on the ballot, and no distractions for the electorate. Neither factor is true. For example, Dardenne's home base of Baton Rouge will be essentially shut down from noon until evening come October 2nd as the Tennessee Volunteers face the LSU Tigers in Tiger Stadium. Voting will be a very low priority in the College Football obsessed Capitol City. That hurts the former State Senator from BR, namely Dardenne.
Meanwhile, events further to the South and elsewhere benefit Roger Villere and to a resonable extent Butch Gautreaux as well.
The more core GOP voters turnout to vote in October, the better that the Tea Party, conservative alternative candidate for Lt. Gov.. will do. Dardenne has taken considerable negative hits in recent weeks, as statewide conservative talkshow hosts like Moon Griffon have attacked the Secretary for voting for a series of tax increases while serving in the State Senate.
Dardenne argues that his support of tax cuts far outstrips and taxes he supported. Still, the tax hike argument has had political resonance for Villere, who has contrasted it with his desire to abolish the income tax. It plays well with conservative Republican voters. The more that turnout to vote on October 2nd, the better the GOP Chairman stands to do.
Up until a week ago, it did not seem if Villere stood to enjoy a particularly strong proportional Republican turnout. All of the closed congressional primary elections looked done on August 28th, and the one competitive election which would directly benefit the Metairie candidate, the Jefferson Parish Presidential Special election, became suddenly far less contentious.
(The name Villere is well known in Jefferson and Orleans Parish. Not only is Roger Villere descended from one of the founding families of New Orleans, but most residents of Orleans or Jefferson have either seen the ubitious Villere's Florist trucks or bought flowers from his shops. Moreover, while it has nothing personally to do with Roger Villere, most metro New Orleanians grew up grocery shopping at Canal Villere stores. The Schwegmanns proved that where you "make groceries" can have a positive political resonance for candidates hailing from that family--at least for their first couple of elections. Villere's commerical name recognition conjures position responses in his home political base, making him an unusually strong native son candidate.)
Still, when West Banker John Roberts dropped out of the Jefferson Parish President's race, leaving GOP Council President John Young poised for an easy victory over Democratic businessman Larry Haas, the enthusiasm of many Jefferson voters to go the polls left with him. School Board elections in Jefferson and Judgeship races in Orleans did promise to draw a higher voter turnout relative to the rest of the state, helping Villere, but not to the extent that a hot race to succeed Aaron Broussard might have.
Then, three events occured changing the political landscape.. Primarily, the Second Congressional District Democratic Primary came alive. Attacks by contenders Gary Johnson and Eugene Green on front runner Cedric Richmond began to raise the possibility of an October 2nd runoff in the Jefferson Parish and Orleans Area. The chances that Richmond would win outright in August decreased. That alone would drastically increase Democratic and Independent turnout in October, particularly on the West Bank of Jefferson.
As the native son candidate, higher potential turnout benefits Villere in general in his home base regardless of party. Just as Republicans in the Orleans metro supported local Mary Landrieu, so Democrats might support native Villere, simply because he was a local. Moreover, though, the increased voter turnout might change the overall dynamics of the Lt. Gov's race. Dardenne is the candidate that has the highest potential for Democratic votes statewide, so a Democratic voter surge on behalf of a strong Democratic challenger hurts the Secretary proportionately worse than any other GOP candidate.
An increase in Democratic turnout in October, should the 2nd District primary go to a runoff, is likely to benefit Butch Gautreaux, a Democrat. The moderate Sec. State's hoped for Democratic support in an all Republican contest. However, as voters in Orleans and Jefferson come to cast their ballots for Richmond or one of the other 2nd District Democrats, they might also support the Democrat in the Lt. Gov's field, increasing his proportion of the final vote. Even if Villere's support does not rise drastically from a native son standpoint, Dardenne falls in proportion to the other GOP contenders as Gautreaux becomes a real contender in the race. It turns into a real five way contest for Lt. Governor where anything could happen.
Gautreaux, expecting this possibility is mounting a serious campaign in the Crescent City as well as elsewhere. One of this closest advisors tells The Louisiana Weekly that the Democrat is funded well enough to spend as much as $400,000 in the closing weeks of the campaign, and Gautreaux was in the New Orleans area organizing his campaign as recently as the second week of August.
He is doing the same in his home base of Acadiana. A truism of Louisiana politics is that all things being equal, Cajuns vote for Cajuns, and Gautreaux has been using his name in the South West Louisiana to blunt Dardenne's appeal.
Nor can the Secretary count on the GOP-leaning Florida Parishes to take up the slack. Where Villere has not built bridges, Kevin Davis has. The St. Tammany Parish President lacks hotly contested elections to drive his turnout, but that has not stopped Davis from lining the roadways in St. Tammany, Washington, and across the region with his signs and signs of support.
Those realities make the potential October election far closer than it may seem at first glace. Villere might enjoy another boost if the two major Republican primary contests also move to runoffs. The Chairman's strategy of appealing to conservative primary voters could be augmented if former Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor forces incumbent Republican US Senator David Vitter into a runoff. A recent poll by Verne Kennedy admits the possibility. In a trial heat for the Aug. 28 Republican primary, Vitter polled 46 percent to Traylor's 34 percent, according to Kennedy's poll. Some 21 percent of the respondents were undecided.
Of course, a WWL-TV poll by the Clarus Research Group said exactly the opposite, that Vitter was assured of a first primary victory, with 74 percent of the vote to Traylor's 5 percent--and with physician Nick Accardo at 3 percent. "Undecided" gets the second highest number in that poll with 18 percent. Nevertheless, even if the US Senate GOP contest ends on August 28th, there remains a great chance of a turnout surge from GOP voters in October. There is a high probibility that the 3rd Congressional District GOP primary will move to a runoff. Internal polls show Major General Hunt Downer and Jeff Landry tied with a small margin going to the third Republican candidate Kristian Magar. Odds are against anyone winning that race outright.
The Third District race, with includes all GOP voters from St. Bernard to Grand Isle to Terrebonne to the Lafayette and New Iberia suburbs, could prove a turnout bonanza for Villere. He is known in much of the area for his Floral work, but also appeals to the same Tea Party leaning, conservative voters that will be driven to the polls to support either Landry or Downer, should there be a GOP Congressional runoff there in October..
With Doug Kershaw beginning a television ad purchase in the coming weeks, arguing that his entertainment experience makes him the only qualified candidate, and the other races and factors around the state, it becomes difficult for Jay Dardenne to identify as specific base that will turnout for his candidacy over the other Lt Gubernatorial contenders. It is possible that he ranks close in the vote to whomever ends up in the runoff with the Secretary, and being squeezed on so many fronts has the outside (if less than likely) potential of forcing Dardenne from a runoff slot altogether.
By Christopher Tidmore, [email protected]
Christopher Tidmore is on the radio weekdays from 7-8 AM on WSLA 1560 AM New Orleans and KKAY 1590 AM Baton Rouge, online at www.gtmorning.com