SADOW: Kennedy’s Big War Chest Portends Gubernatorial Run

No, Louisiana Treas. John Kennedy isn’t trying to discourage opponents from contesting for the office he holds by filing his 2013 campaign finance report a month early showing a fat bankroll. Rather, he’s playing one of the few cards he has left if he entertains becoming governor in 2016.

Next month, all candidates for major office and/or who have an existing open campaign account with any activity must supply the state with paperwork on their previous year’s campaign activities, but Kennedy produced his a month early with an impressive net haul of around $600,000 last year to have cash on hand at year’s end of about $3 million. Even though he lists himself as a candidate for reelection, the size of activity and voluntary announcement early point to his real motivation of being governor.

Which, at this point, is dicey. Certain niches already are getting filled, with that of the perceived Republican moderate held by Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and that of very liberal sacrificial lamb pinned on Democrat state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Kennedy, who has been all over the board ideologically in his past statewide attempts at office but who has been a populist throughout and recently settled on presenting himself as a conservative Republican, has a central problem in that both the populist niche and conservative niche can be filled by a better-known, better-financed, more ideologically consistent, and at least as popular Republican Sen. David Vitter, and early polls put the Senator comfortably in the lead.

The conventional wisdom is that Vitter stands above the field as a conservative colossus, whose entrance into the race would deprive any other professed candidate of the political right the air needed to have a chance to win – especially Kennedy. Already, just Vitter saying he may run is presumed to have sent at least one potential candidate scurrying back to the safety of staying put in his present posting. Vitter has declared that he will be ready to announce his intentions later this month regarding this race (in the same spirit, for the record I announce here that I may or may not address whether I will run for governor sometime between now and the election).

But if this truly is the dynamic at play, it doesn’t mean Kennedy has to sit back and wait for word of the Vitter decision from up on high to be relayed down to him. As a federal officeholder (and perhaps exactly because of his own actions), Vitter cannot use money in federal campaign accounts for state office, so if he wants to get a jump on fundraising for governor, until he declares and opens a state account personally he can’t scrape up a penny. It can be done on his behalf through a special kind of federal account, but it is less efficient and more cumbersome – but of which allies have taken advantage on his behalf, gathering $1.5 million.

So by announcing prior to the end of the month much earlier than the Feb. 15 deadline and reporting a nice tidy sum with evidence it can grow much bigger, Kennedy is trying to discourage Vitter’s entrance, leaving it up to campaign professionals to guess whether he’s serious or bluffing that he will run regardless of a Vitter entrance. It’s a credible threat: in essence Kennedy has twice as much money as Vitter, and what’s the point in raising so much if it’s just to win his current job again, which he should be able to do for a fraction of what’s in his account? If Kennedy’s ready to retire from that position, he has nothing to lose by spending it all even in a losing gubernatorial effort, because he can’t take it with him (because it must be spent on campaign-related things, his or somebody else’s, it conveys little personal benefit).

Unlike Vitter, Kennedy doesn’t have to forgo raising money directly, because he can claim it would go to defending his treasurer’s spot. Conceivably, he could wait perhaps a year-and-a-half before definitively entering the contest, using his ability to vacuum up contributions as one barometer of his chances at the state’s highest office. After all, early entrances are just means to enable fundraising and he already can do that, or are to build name recognition, and he’s already got a good bit of that which won’t grow much nor unambiguously more positively just by saying he’s running for governor. He could survey the field as it develops and has the luxury of deciding at a relatively late date whether to commit. Best of all, this pronouncement actually could be a fact in ultimately discouraging Vitter and opening that niche for Kennedy to attempt to fill it.

This differs substantially from Dardenne’s strategy, as all of this could apply to him as well, precisely because he faces no competition for his assumed niche. But because Kennedy does, perhaps his optimal strategy is to make Vitter commit early if he’s going for it, then see if Vitter falters in consolidating the principled and populist conservative wings of the GOP, leaving room for himself if that happens.

So, if Vitter deigns to tell the world his plans by the end of this month as advertised, don’t assume Kennedy reports he’s out a nanosecond after Vitter says he’s in. Kennedy’s vigorous fundraising and early revelation shows he’s not likely to surrender just because Vitter proclaims himself for governor rested, relaxed, and ready to go.

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