A number of unusual features will make the 2011 statewide elections among the more unique in Louisiana political history. The primary is Oct. 22 and the general election is Nov. 19.
• Republicans are running against Republicans, and the Democrats are pretty much a non-factor.
• Going back to the 1983 elections, a record number of state senators are unopposed. And the third largest number of representatives won’t have to campaign.
• Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed 56 legislators after they were re-elected without opposition.
• The GOP is guaranteed control of both the House and Senate and is shooting for a two-thirds margin in the Senate.
• And campaigns for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, a relatively unknown state agency, have taken centerstage. BESE makes policy for the state’s K-12 public education system.
Those of us who had to register Democrat in order to vote in party primaries back in the 1950s would have never guessed the situation would be almost the other way around 60 years later.
In those days, defeating Democratic candidates was virtually impossible.
Open primaries pushed by former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards in 1975 had the unintended consequence of boosting Republican voting numbers in the state. Edwards said he got tired of seeing Democrats spend money in two party primaries and Republicans waiting until the general election to compete.
Candidates all run at the same time in the open primary, and Republicans have gradually become the dominant political party in the state.
Only two statewide GOP officeholders have serious opposition. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne faces Billy Nungesser, Republican president of Plaquemines Parish, in Dardenne’s bid for a full four-year term. Secretary of State Tom Schedler is being challenged by Speaker of the House Jim Tucker in Schedler’s pursuit of a full term. Both are Republicans.
Jindal, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon and Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain have only token opposition. State Treasurer John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, and state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, R-Tallulah, are unopposed.
U.S. Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, R-New Orleans, had qualified to challenge Caldwell, but withdrew. Kennedy had no opposition for a fourth term.
Twenty state senators are already elected. Two of them are newcomers and the 18 others are current senators. The 20 represent 51 percent of the Senate’s 39 members.
The House has 40 incumbents who were unopposed, and one new representative had no challengers. The 41 represent 39 percent of the 105 House members. The only times that number was exceeded since 1983 were in 1999 when 50 representatives were unopposed and in 2003 when 45 had no challengers.
Jindal is the first governor in modern times to endorse such a large number of legislators. He is backing 27 senators and 65 House members, or 92 of the 144 state legislators. Of those, 17 senators and 39 representatives are unopposed.
The governor is obviously covering all of his bases. He suffered some major defeats at the last legislative session and is doing his dead-level best to see it doesn’t happen again. Any legislator thinking of jumping ship will be reminded that Jindal was in their camp, even though it may have been after they had another term all locked up.
The next president of the Senate, speaker of the House and committee chairmen will need Jindal’s stamp of approval. The governor minces no words when he says he’s going to call the shots. One editorial writer last week said the Jindal political operation has a reputation for vindictiveness that keeps others in line.
A comic sidelight to the push for Republican control of all things political is the interplay between Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie. Both want to be Mr. GOP in Louisiana. Some analysts see Vitter as a gubernatorial candidate in 2015.
Tougher control over the Legislature is Jindal’s main pursuit, but he is also making a serious effort to continue as a major player on the state education scene. The governor has endorsed six of the eight candidates for elected positions on BESE, and he appoints the other three.
Jindal is an advocate for charter schools and private school vouchers and wants John White to become the next state superintendent of education. White is superintendent of the Recovery School District that took control of most public schools in Orleans Parish. The governor needs eight votes to get White elected, and he has only six at the moment.
Local school boards, superintendents and teacher unions are mounting a serious effort to fight the Jindal-White attempted takeover of public education.
It’s clear that Jindal and other Republicans are trying to capitalize quickly on their superior numbers. They have wasted no time in flexing their political muscles. It has been extremely interesting to watch the power plays and the intrigue from the sidelines.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].