BAYHAM: Will Vitter Go From DC Mardi Gras Captain To Kingfish?

Every year in late January or early February, the culinary scene in our nation’s capital improves (if only for a few days) when the Washington Mardi Gras rolls into town.

Though ostensibly a more political (yet ironically also egalitarian) New Orleans-style Mardi Gras ball, the event is a great venue for local officials to gain valuable face time with members of the state’s congressional delegation.

And along with the good food and good music there’s always plenty of good political gossip.

And though there’s a hotly contested US Senate race in 2014, everyone is talking about the 2015 election for governor.

If US Senator, the captain- which in Mardi Gras parlance means he’s the boss of the operation even if he doesn’t wear the crown, has his way, next year will mark his final Washington Mardi Gras as part of the official krewe as he has announced his intention to seek the governorship in 2015.

Thus far Vitter has had a charmed gubernatorial campaign.

A recent poll shows that Vitter is the strongest candidate, a lock to not only make the runoff but finish first in the priamry. There’s also another set of numbers Team Vitter should be excited about.

In the three weeks since he declared his candidacy, Louisiana’s junior senator has raised an impressive $1.4 million. Practically matching that amount is the pro-Vitter Super PAC, the Fund for Louisiana’s Future, which has reportedly raised $1.5 million.

Though the two entities cannot legally coordinate their efforts, the electorate won’t notice the fine print differentiating the Super PAC ads from the official Vitter media though they will get the message, whether advancing the Metairie Republican’s candidacy or blasting his opponents.

And if the GOP takes the US Senate this fall, Vitter’s fundraising will really pick up as he’s in line to become chairman of a powerful committee.

As of now only two other candidates of significance have joined the fray: Republican Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne and Democratic State Representative John Bel Edwards.

Dardenne has a respectable $1.2 million on hand, three statewide wins to his name and a determination to make the race for governor.

The Baton Rouge Republican passed over an opportunity to challenge Mary Landrieu for her US Senate seat despite the fact that Dardenne was considered the strongest Republican candidate.

Also he doesn’t seem much interested in spending the next four to eight years as lieutenant governor delivering his trademark “Why Louisiana ain’t Mississippi” talk. Dardenne will either be going to the Fourth Floor or going home.

In a way, Dardenne is like a running back who has to scramble past his own offensive line (Vitter) and the opposing defensive line (Edwards) just to make a runoff. And the closer Vitter polls to 40%, the harder it will be for Dardenne to turn the corner.

And then there is State Treasurer John Kennedy. The “King of Free Media” has hinted he is interested in seeking the Governor’s Mansion though has not made it official. However, his political operation made a point of aiming a spotlight on his $3 million on hand, funds accrued from having not been challenged in office since he was elected treasurer in 1999.

And though he has the cash to compete, Kennedy lacks a constituency.

It’s doubtful Madisonville Republican could outpoll Vitter in St. Tammany Parish (he didn’t against Landrieu in 2008) and to a large degree Kennedy is a victim of his own success as state treasurer by failing to draw an opponent and thus having an excuse to flood the state’s airwaves telling Louisianans about what he has done in office.

Though Kennedy has tried to supplement his electoral unanimity as treasurer by frequently calling into radio talk shows and bombarding news outlets with press releases announcing how he would do Bobby Jindal’s job, he is very much a general without an army when it comes to grassroots.

The voters like Kennedy. Unfortunately for his ambitions, they like the treasurer where he is.

The most noteworthy campaign finance report was Edwards’, who has almost $500,000 on hand. While a paltry sum compared to the warchests of the Republican contenders, it’s an impressive haul for a state representative, which will help his largely invisible candidacy attain more credibility.

Furthermore, Edwards’s account shows that Louisiana Democrats are not going to take a pass on the 2015 governor’s race as they did in 2011.

If he is the lone Democrat of stature on the ballot, Edwards’ half million will go further in the primary than the GOP candidates’ seven-figure campaign accounts. Rather than having to convince people to vote for him in the primary, Edwards could use his limited funds on generating higher turnout amongst his party’s base and hope that it’s enough to make a runoff.

And while his eyes are officially locked on the Republicans, Edwards will spend the next eighteen months prior to qualifying nervously checking his rear-view miror for New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

If Landrieu throws his hat into the race, the race for governor will be immediately polarized into a Vitter-Landrieu contest.

If that happens, John Bel’s $500,000 won’t seem like very much at all.

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