Suddenly, if you consider media reaction being anything close to a genuine reading of public opinion, in Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne is the hottest politician in terms of political future. And perhaps it is conservative Republicans, who have had a rocky relationship with him, who join the mainstream media here in a kind of wishful thinking that may become reality.
Last month, a poll came to attention perhaps more because of Dardenne’s place in it than anything else. In part, it asked public opinion on hypothetical 2014 Senate matchups featuring Sen. Mary Landrieu. The Democrat widely is considered, if not the most vulnerable, one of the most vulnerable senators to lose her seat in the upcoming election.
Although Dardenne’s name never had been mentioned as a Senate candidate – the most cited names have been Reps. Bill Cassidy and John Fleming, former Rep. Jeff Landry, and recently inserting himself into the discussion, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chairman Chas Roemer – it was included against Landrieu, and he polled the best. State media outlets made inquiries, and then a national opinion magazine did a whole story on the possibility of Dardenne running. The perspicacious The Hayride also weighed in.
Dardenne always has been considered by conservatives somewhat suspiciously, even though he cast more conservative than liberal votes as a state senator and then consistently called for more efficient state spending at lower levels. This is because in governance he always has preferred to get along and go along, even if it meant, for example, acquiescing to tax increases such as with the “Stelly Plan” thereby abandoning conservative principles when it seemed convenient.
But neither has he endeared himself to the considerable populist conservative strain that exists in the state because is he not a populist, unlike 2008 Senate candidate state Treas. John Kennedy, which provides cover when abandoning conservative principles. So, despite a voting record on the whole conservative in the state Senate, neither principled nor populist conservatives consider him among their top choices for any office, if not their last option among Republicans.
Yet if the goal is to keep conservative Republicans in meaningful office (which, as lieutenant governor, given the almost nonexistent powers of the office, Dardenne currently does not occupy), even a mild conservative such as Dardenne might be the best fit for the Senate. At a practical level, Dardenne did have the best matchup against Landrieu. While the sampling frame of the poll overstated support for Landrieu, that does not matter in a comparison of Dardenne to other challengers listed, Cassidy and Fleming, at this time maximizing the party’s chances of sending her intro retirement.
A Dardenne candidacy also solves the problem of sacrificing an existing House member (if, as GOP elites hope, support coalesces early around one candidate as a de facto nominee), in the case of these two, to move on up to the Senate. The two districts involved, while to the advantage of Republicans, are the two among the state’s least in that quality except for the heavily-Democratic Second, held by a Democrat. In 2008, special circumstances in both cases arguably allowed both to win. And while 2014 does not appear likely to produce as unfavorable an environment as 2008 for Republican candidates, one never knows.
Finally, Dardenne may consider leaving his spot prematurely because it looks like he’ll have a tough fight on his hands regardless in 2015. The gubernatorial field looks crowded with Kennedy almost certain to run representing the populist conservative wing, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain also giving it serious thought who could capture principled conservatives’ votes, and Sen. David Vitter, who has the greatest advantage of all by his ability to move between both the principled and populist conservatives and rally both, who refuses to dispel speculation that he is running. Throw in there state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a darling of liberal Democrats, and it might be tough for Dardenne to squeeze in to the left of Kennedy, Strain, and Vitter and to the right of Edwards.
He could take a pass and try to retain his current job, but that won’t be easy, either. His main opponent from last election, Plaquemines Parish Pres. Billy Nungesser, has indicated he will try again for the office and was competitive. Dardenne might consider a 2014 run as a way of having a longer campaign for his current job if he fails in the Senate attempt (and he has to raise money separately for them anyway, so why not just start early statewide campaigning, but for the Senate instead of the lieutenant governor’s position?).
With pursuit of the Governor’s Mansion potentially tricky and potential competitive opposition for his present position, Dardenne might think he should hedge his bets and feel his electability and keeping other representatives in their spots arguments could win the day among Republican elites and have them close ranks around him to run for the Senate. And this would be a freebie for him, where his current office would not be at risk, but where this campaigning could enhance his ability to keep that office or move up to governor a year later.
In addition, this likely is a one-time only offer. If he passes on it now and Vitter passes next year for governor, a Senate slot likely will not open for the rest of Dardenne’s political life. Even if Vitter does have a go at the governor’s office and wins, in 2016 an appointed incumbent Republican will stand in Dardenne’s way (rumor has it that this could be Kennedy) and his major trump card, electability, will have been wasted because that presumed superior electability exists only against the Democrat incumbent Landrieu. He even has a fallback position if Cassidy ran in 2014 with him and Cassidy defeats him: run for Cassidy’s open House seat while he continues win or lose as lieutenant governor.
So, a Dardenne 2014 Senate candidacy has something to offer both to him and to conservatives and/or Republican elites. He’s an ambitious politician, and they want the fall of the last statewide Democrat elected official, so despite the wariness they may have for each other they may become bedfellows.