On The Lt. Governor’s Race

The final tally had Jay Dardenne beating Billy Nungesser 53-47, which was a slightly smaller margin than the 54-46 spread I expected.

Dardenne, ultimately, is beatable in a statewide race. But he won’t be beaten the way Nungesser tried to do it.

Some advice for the conservative hardliners who want to knock Dardenne out in the next election – and you’d better take this to heart, because it’s no secret that in the next election Jay will be gunning for the top job. Stop trying to run against him on the basis that he’s a RINO.

Can you make a case that Dardenne is to the left of the typical Republican in Louisiana? Sure. His voting record in the Senate painted him as a moderate. Consider Dardenne the Louisiana GOP’s version of Mitt Romney if you want; he voted for the Stelly Plan, the basis for which was the idea that the state government needed a larger and more stable source of revenue to better deliver services for its citizens. Stelly did exactly that, and every dime of that money got shoveled out the door as fast as it came in. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s population didn’t grow at all, we exported jobs and college graduates to Texas and eventually voters got wise to a bad deal. It’s fair to criticize the producers of Stelly and attempt to make them pay a price for their lack of fealty to limited government and low taxation.

But there’s a problem with that, which is this – Dardenne, as one of the leaders in the state legislature when the Stelly plan passed, wasn’t throwing in with Edwin Edwards or Kathleen Blanco to foist that bad tax plan upon the people of the state. Rather, he was Mike Foster’s floor leader. And Mike Foster was the state’s first two-term Republican governor since Reconstruction. Never mind that Foster was Louisiana’s original RINO, having switched from the Democrats just before qualifying to run for governor in 1995; at that time the GOP was in lousy shape and needed whatever it could get. Dardenne’s advocacy for Stelly wasn’t a sellout to a Democrat (well, OK, it was a sellout to an ex-Democrat, but the whole party had already done that) – it was doing the dirty work for the state’s GOP establishment at the time.

Things have changed significantly between then and now, and Louisiana has become a lot more conservative. Stelly was very unpopular and it was rightly repealed. There is a mandate for smaller government and less taxing and spending. But that doesn’t mean voters are still interested in punishing the people responsible for passing it. That’s clear; Jim Tucker had the same backing Nungesser did and an even larger financial advantage and he couldn’t beat Secretary of State and former Stelly proponent Tom Schedler with his old vote either.

I don’t think it’s that voters are necessarily willing to forgive Dardenne and Schedler for the Stelly vote. I’m saying it’s just not all that big an issue anymore. Neither one particularly stands by Stelly, and the fact is that the same voters being asked to punish people like Dardenne and Schedler for that vote actually agreed to implement it in a constitutional amendment. There is even a segment of the population – not a majority, mind you, but a decent-sized segment of the population – which isn’t even happy to see Stelly go.

Combine that latter group with the number of folks who are anti-Stelly but willing to let bygones be bygones, and you’re not going to beat Jay on “he’s a RINO; he led the fight to pass the Stelly plan.”

To beat Jay, you need something stronger and more current than that. What you really need is a campaign touting yourself as more appealing than Dardenne.

I was flabbergasted that Nungesser couldn’t name the six agencies the Lt. Governor controls or how the state’s department of culture and tourism is funded. That was mind-boggling. Billy isn’t a stupid guy, and one assumes in his significant business experience he’s been around the job-interview process often enough. To someone like that the concept that you really ought to have some idea what the job you’re applying for entails should be pretty basic.

And yet in a six-month campaign where he raised and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars (maybe into the seven figures), Billy didn’t even have a grasp of the funding sources and functions of the office he was running for? That’s fundamental stuff. It’s also stuff you can master in two days of superficial research.

You’re not going to beat Jay without some knowledge on your side. Say what you want about Dardenne, but he’s a smart guy and he doesn’t bring a knife to an intellectual gunfight. He shows up prepared and he’s going to have some facts on his side.

And Dardenne is competent and honest. The public gets that. They’re not particularly inspired by the guy, and they probably won’t ever be given his moderate and technocratic politics and demeanor. But Jay has managed his career perfectly thus far by moving through a couple of offices – Secretary of State and the Lt. Governor post he now holds – in which being a competent, honest technocrat makes you a perfect fit. Jay runs a pretty tight ship, there’s no scandal, he doesn’t make a lot of waves even when he’s doing something consequential. Has he shown himself to be visionary or transformational? No. Do we want somebody visionary or transformational in the Lt. Governor’s office? Hell, no.

That was another problem Nungesser made for himself. At every opportunity he told the voters that if elected, he would seek to expand the office of Lt. Governor. Whether Billy realized it or not, by doing that he was running to Dardenne’s left even while trying to paint his opponent as a closet liberal. What does conservatism mean in this day and age? Lots of things, but smaller government is the most notable one. How are you going to have smaller government when all the secondary statewide office-holders are trying to do more than the constitution limits them to? Dardenne, meanwhile, has actually eliminated dozens of positions and millions of dollars from departments he controls.

Voters saw that.

I notice something else, though – which is that while you can still score points with political attacks voters are getting more and more irritated with them. And a campaign based on nothing but political attacks won’t work anymore.

Billy has some appeal coming out of the BP spill and his role in the recovery, and because of that he wasn’t a bad candidate for statewide office. But his campaign wasn’t built on that appeal; it was built on stuff like “Jay Dardenne voted himself a pay raise” (which was provably false) or “Jay Dardenne raised taxes” (which doesn’t have anything to do with the Lt. Governor’s office) or “Jay Dardenne had a pro-choice vote once” (which, again, has zero relevance to the job they’re running for).

Or this ridiculous Mary Jennings business.

Nungesser threw that bomb late in the campaign, almost as a Hail Mary pass which was seen as such by many in the media and rightly ignored. The allegation was that Dardenne had an affair with Ms. Jennings sometime around 1993, represented her in a personal injury case and withheld money from her. It was an old allegation that in a half-dozen campaigns Dardenne has run since then nobody had done anything with. And in Baton Rouge legal circles the verdict on it was that Jennings was a vexatious client who threw charges like that around on multiple occasions and that she was a kook. She wasn’t satisfied with the judgement Dardenne got her, and in an attempt to get more money out of him propagated the charge to whomever would listen.

It was gutter politics for Nungesser aide Kent Gates, based out of San Diego, to attempt to stir the Mary Jennings dirt up on Dardenne. Particularly given that Nungesser had been named in the Canal Street Madam scandal back in 2003 with allegations too scurrillous to mention. We didn’t get into that stuff because it’s really too ugly to be worth discussing on a political site, but for Nungesser to attempt to slam Dardenne with a sex scandal on such weak evidence was amateurish and subjected himself to massive retaliation that, thankfully for all parties, never came.

Nungesser did try to make the case that he’d proved himself a fighter for Louisiana in the BP spill saga and he’d bring that same spirit to the Lt. Governor’s office. But if he wasn’t going to present a cogent plan to improve upon what Dardenne is doing with tourism, then he needed to be up front about something lots of people in Louisiana believed about this race – that Gov. Bobby Jindal won’t be around to finish his second term and the winner of the race in question is our next governor. Nungesser never did that. He hinted at it, but he never came out and said it, and that was a mistake. Had Nungesser presented himself as Louisiana’s version of Chris Christie – the fat guy who tells the truth and isn’t scared of Democrats or the establishment – he would have had a better shot at getting elected. Doing that would have opened the race up to all kinds of issues Nungesser could have used Dardenne’s moderate positions on to his advantage.

Plus, that stuff would have animated voters. Tourism and state parks puts voters to sleep, but when the race is about what the Lt. Governor does and not about the future of Louisiana – and the voters don’t really have a good opportunity to think about that since the Democrats didn’t run anybody credible against Jindal this year – you’re letting Dardenne put you in that box when you don’t come out and say that you’re running for Lt. Governor because you think it’s really a governor-in-waiting job.

Nungesser’s biggest mistake, though, might have been the disconnect between his attempt to run as the conservative in the race and the reason why conservatism is in vogue in Louisiana in the first place. People in Louisiana are responding to conservative messages and voting for Republicans for several reasons, but mostly because they’ve rejected the old-time crooked politics the Louisiana Democrat Party gave the state for decades. Indictments, sleazy deals, lack of respect for the rule of law – those things used to be cute but now they’re seen as an embarrassment. Ever since Katrina the voters have associated that dirt with Democrats and voted the other way.

But Nungesser comes along and stands that on its head. He’s got an FBI investigation of some contracts he let as the Parish President in Plaquemines, an investigation which looks like it might well be politically motivated and without merit, and he doesn’t do a good job of explaining his side of the situation. He’s bragging about how he went to the refineries on the river and strong-armed them into displacing out-of-state vendors in favor of local folks, which on one side sounds like a leader who’s fighting for his people but on another side sounds like typical Louisiana politicians shaking down the private sector.

And when you look at the campaign finance disclosures – which I haven’t done, but I surmise I’d find evidence of this if I did – and see that some of those local vendors are now donating money to Nungesser, even if they’re doing it because they think he’s a good guy and they agree with his politics rather than as some payoff because he chiseled Murphy Oil on their behalf, you can make the case that it looks like the old-time crony-capitalist sleazy Louisiana politics Louisiana’s new conservative voters want no part of.

And he’s the conservative who’s throwing money at BOLD, LIFE and Blair Boutte in New Orleans while getting Cleo Fields to do robocalls for him in Baton Rouge – while running radio ads on black stations castigating Dardenne for scrubbing dead people and fictional characters off the voter rolls. If that’s not a complete sellout of good-government conservatism in an attempt to get elected, nothing is. Those dead people and fictional characters are why Mary Landrieu is in the Senate, and the conservatives around the state know it. And anybody who wants to get rid of the politics of the past won’t be happy about a candidate who throws in with Cleo Fields.

In short, this was a lousy campaign. It spent an enormous amount of money against a beatable candidate and got only 47 percent of the vote, and frankly that number was higher than it should have been.

Nungesser should have run stronger than this. Somebody, at some point, will run a better campaign against Dardenne than this. We’ll see what happens when they do. But for now, the guy who should have won the Lt. Governor’s race did.

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