BAYHAM: Dastugue’s Revenge

The circle of political life can at times be fascinating stuff, as new life sprouts out of the carcass of “dead” politicians and political movements.

For example, it was from the ashes of the Barry Goldwater nomination and abysmal general election campaign that Ronald Reagan the national political figure and modern American conservatism was born. Reagan’s closing argument for Goldwater through his televised “A Time for Choosing” address was a rallying call for a movement that would emerge victorious 16 years later.

The Democrats had their own “A Time for Choosing” moment at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which would prove to be a consequential event not because of the people nominated to the ticket (the later defeated John Kerry and thereafter disgraced John Edwards) but because of a speech delivered by a then obscure Illinois state senator that would result in the election of the country’s first African-American president.

After news spread about the ascension of U.S. Representative Steve Scalise to the third highest ranking position in Congress’ lower house on Thursday afternoon, I mentally retraced the chain of political events to its unlikely origin, for Scalise’s rise to the highest congressional position ever attained by a Louisiana Republican was born out of one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of the Louisiana GOP.

The year was 1995. Four years prior Louisiana Republicans received a drubbing at the polls due to the David Duke “undertow” effect that dragged down Republican candidates for other offices. Going into that election, the state’s top three officials were Republicans and after the political tornado passed, the GOP had clung to the Secretary of State’s office by only the barest majority.

And to add further insult to injury, Edwin Edwards was back in the governor’s mansion for a fourth term.

Things began to brighten for Louisiana Republicans in 1995.

The national Republicans had shocked the political world by taking both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower’s first election as president and the state party’s perpetual nemesis (Edwards) had announced he was not going to seek a fifth term.

Louisiana Republicans were eagerly chasing after the national political wave that had bypassed the state the year before and hopes were high going into the 1995 state elections.

Enter Quentin Dastugue.

Don’t feel bad if the name doesn’t ring a bell. It didn’t in 1995 (hence this story). I had to google his name just to make sure I spelled it correctly and I was a delegate for him at the state convention.

In any case Dastugue was a high-profile Republican state representative from Jefferson Parish and had announced his decision he would campaign for governor through an unconventional route, by walking the state.

Dastugue had borrowed the idea from former Secretary of Education and presidential aspirant Lamar Alexander, who had walked across his home state of Tennessee in his successful bid for governor back in 1978. The gimmick worked better for Lamar than it did for Dastugue.

Because the legislature in Louisiana is elected the same times as governor, Dastugue had to give up his safe seat in the state house of representatives.

At first Dastugue achieved a degree of success by competing in the Louisiana Republican Party’s overly elaborate caucus nominating process and convention that proved to be an enormous waste of time, energy and most importantly, money.

Dollars that could have been used introducing Dastugue to the electorate, thus moving up his poll numbers and thus demonstrating he was a viable candidate worth investing donations in were instead being used to humor decided activists and meander through a meaningless process.

Having the party endorsement proved to be worth as much as used Kleenex; no official money from the cash-strapped party came with the distinction and worse yet most of the people involved with the party were not so secretly supporting other candidates, including a Democrat who was contemplating a party switch.

I attended an event at Dastugue’s home not long before qualifying and the reality of the situation was evident. His staff was bloated with party hacks who “came with the endorsement” and he was not replacing the money he was hemorrhaging on overhead.

It felt more like a funeral than a rally and shortly thereafter the official Republican nominee for Louisiana’s highest office would end up not qualifying for governor.

The ignominy of it all was so great that the endorsement of the state party for many years was viewed as a curse and several prominent, successful and perhaps superstitious candidates INSISTED and DEMANDED that the Louisiana GOP not endorse their campaigns. I am not making this part up.

With his gubernatorial campaign scuttled, some of Dastugue’s supporters encouraged him to run for his old seat in the legislature as term limits had not been adopted.

However Dastugue refused for at that same event with all the long faces he introduced an upbeat young man who, with Dastugue’s blessing, was seeking his spot in the house of representatives.

That youthful candidate who was working the crowd at the “Dastugue wake” was Steve Scalise.

By clearing the way for a young conservative successor, Dastugue set in motion something that nobody could have foreseen.

It took almost twenty years, but it can now be said that the Dastugue debacle of 1995 proved to be a relevant event.

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