The omnipresent yet mythical tome on conducting a political campaign says you kick it off by wrestling into your possession all of the low-hanging fruit in sight, creating a first impression that dunks it home for your partisans and intrigues those who may have soured on other parties’ candidate offerings. Then here comes state Sen. Dan Claitor who in introducing himself to Sixth Congressional District voters decided he should scale the highest, most dangerous ladder to pick fruit high up the tree, risking an immediate fall onto his ….
And he may have done just that. Claitor, after well-publicized hesitation, yesterday announced he would contend for this spot, the contest to date having attracted no one in elected office, and immediately launched into alienating key Republican constituencies, the party label he claims, using the language of the left. It wasn’t so much that he swore he would not serve as a doctrinaire Republican or conservative – even as his voting scorecard average for the Louisiana Legislature Index of 65 for his five years of service is around the GOP average for the chamber and definitely more conservative/reform than liberal/populist – but that for reasons of poor political judgment he disempowered his own effort while helping his opponents.
At the very time when he needed to make a good first impression, Claitor said a reason he chose to run was that he was “not excited” about unannounced opponents, who in his estimation “have questionable associations with ‘hate groups.’” This apparently referred to a rumored candidacy of Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which advocates for public policy based upon traditional social values, as it is defined by the group of hypocrites that comprise the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Which tells us, right off the bat, that Claitor is as unserious a policy-maker as they come. By this remark, he shows little substantive knowledge about political ideas, for the SPLC is nothing more than an exercise in hate and bigotry designed to scare donors in padding its quarter-billion dollar coffers, using as its most common tactic to do so tagging this or that a “hate group” using a twisted definition of that – essentially, by its cosmology anybody who dares disagrees with its public policy agenda.
At best, this means Claitor is intellectual lazy in adopting as his own a rationally indefensible definition. At worst, it shows he accepts, for example, the view that public policy that seeks to prevent privileging by government for no supportable reason of a particular special interest, that of a certain segment of those who practice homosexuality, at the expense of the public interest as a whole, not only is unwise, but somehow is illegitimate, signaling to the world that lack of knowledge or ability, or both, render him as a poor critical thinker. Neither is an attractive quality for a candidate to possess.
Of course, a number of voters don’t look for or care about those aspects in their candidates, but assuming he doesn’t wish to cede the conservative vote to another candidate, by this remark he has managed to provide grounds for alienation of both wings of the conservative movement in Louisiana and the district. For principled conservatives, who value at least some degree of erudition and coherence in a candidate’s issue preferences, the unprincipled, if not hopelessly confused, stance he appears to take on this issue makes them wonder whether he could be relied upon to translate solid philosophical underpinnings into policy. For populist conservatives, whose ideology rests on bases more visceral than intellectual, at an emotional level they typically believe in policies Claitor appears to repudiate with that remark.
It begins to border on political stupidity when considering how differently he could have approached the subject. Instead of gratuitously tossing out a motive of his as countering an opponent not even as yet running in a way to offend potential supporters – if he had to say anything at all about that – if what he was trying to convey was that he supported, for example, same-sex marriage, he simply could have said that, such as “I think we need a Republican in Washington who will support same-sex marriage,” and then take his best shot at defending that. Instead, his remark comes off as “Anybody who is against my social issue views is an extremist associated with hatred.” Not only is that going to turn off conservatives that hold contrary views to his regardless of whether formulated through intellectual or visceral origins, but along with them also a good number of populist Democrats who are economic liberals but social conservatives.
For the only reason Claitor possibly could have consciously pursued this course, absent that he’s a complete idiot, is the political calculation that it plays well in the district to do this. He might be trying to riff on the theme advanced by recent special election winner Rep. Vance McAllister to position oneself as a policy-flexible “outsider” in a campaign. In this version, given the more urban Sixth District and that he already holds office that makes his outsider credentials more suspect, Claitor figures conservative voters motivated mainly by social issues are too small in number to matter and this kind of impolite, thereby attention-grabbing, remark may grab some liberal voters who feel the same way on social issues. They may become more likely to do so if Democrats are unable to put forth a quality candidate, as is the situation to date, drawn to the “maverick” Claitor who has demonstrated by that remark his policy flexibility that to them makes him superior over other, presumably more doctrinaire, Republicans.
But the problem with that is it leaves wide open the possibility now for other quality Republicans to pick up the alienated voters. Think of what a gift this can be to someone like state Sen. Norby Chabert, another rumored candidate. His Louisiana Legislature Log lifetime voting record, close to 50, is less conservative and reform-minded as Claitor’s, and below the GOP chamber average for his time in the Senate. Yet if he enters because of Calitor’s intemperate remark all he has to do now is speak platitudes such as “I’m for the idea of marriage between a single man and a single woman,” while he and others also interested circulate the idea that Claitor is against “traditional values,” that will more than cancel out in the minds of some conservatives that Claitor has been better on other issues.
If opponents stick with the theme that Claitor opposes traditional values and thinks those who support them are “hateful,” even given district demographics and if the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the Fifth Congressional District recent special election could be recaptured, Claitor will have a hard time winning. If one quality Republican enters or emerges and one quality Democrat shows up and they make this meme part of their campaigns, he’s history. And it was entirely self-inflicted.
With his record, Claitor easily could have presented himself as the Louisiana version of Sen. John McCain without slandering by implication somebody not even in the race in a way that creates the impression from the start that he’s just another vapid politician who sees himself as better than the people he wants to serve, a scold who tells you your cultural views are illegitimate. First impressions are lasting ones, and we’ll see how the campaign’s dynamics unfold that will tell us in retrospect whether his campaign ultimately began and ended on the same day.