The Race Is On, Apparently, To Succeed Roger Villere As Louisiana’s GOP Chair

It won’t happen until March of 2018 at the earliest, assuming Villere is actually going to follow through on his promise/threat to call it quits as the head of the state party, but there is already some jockeying for the job of succeeding him.

We know this, because it looks like at least one of the candidates approached LAPolitics.com’s Jeremy Alford about doing an article on the subject, and Alford happily obliged (as he should, being the kick-ass political journalist that he is).

See if you can guess who the instigator of this piece-from-out-of-left-field might be

Party leaders could go in several different directions to replace Villere. For example, they could take a cue from the Louisiana Democratic Party, which has Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans as its chair. Placing a regional elected official into the position could have its benefits and some GOP faithfuls have been encouraging two legislators—Rep. Barry Ivey of Central and Sen. Beth Mizell of Bogalusa—to give some consideration to the job. Mizell, though, said on Monday evening that she has decided against pursuing the opportunity and will continue to focus on her Senate district. 

 There’s also a growing need for both mainline parties to be more nimble. The slow and steady proliferation of super PACs have created real competition for the attention of donors. Super PACs (political action committees) are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money, whereas the parties have yet to shed the limitations of giving caps.

The Louisiana Republican Party, in particular, has been very aggressive on this front. It filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court last month to challenge the ban on unlimited donations to political parties. The case could be resolved by the time the next chairman is elected, but the litigation could also become something the next chair will inherit.

Couple this need for a different approach to fundraising with the rapidly-changing media landscape and you can understand why some state central committee members favor fresh blood—meaning the kind of candidate who could work tirelessly, quickly adapt to changes and grow into the job. That’s the kind of banter that comes up when the likelihood of candidacies from either Scott McKnight of Baton Rouge or Derek Babcock of Denham Springs are discussed. Both ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature last cycle, but both have also remained involved in party politics.

Then you have the long-timers, those potential candidates who have been there and done that and have the scars of war to prove it. Scott Wilfong, a consultant from Baton Rouge, has been actively campaigning for the chairmanship; Charlie Buckels of Lafayette has said he’s interested; and Louis Gurvich of New Orleans is committed to throwing his hat in the ring.

It ought to be said that this is a fairly big deal in Louisiana politics, because while the Democrats have had a fairly large amount of turnover at the top of their state leadership in recent years that hasn’t been true of the GOP. In fact, Villere has been on the job for 15 years, which is far and away the longest tenure of any state GOP chairman in the country. The party’s executive director Jason Dore’, moreover, has been in place for six years, and Dore’ is the longest-serving state GOP executive director in the country. There has been an enormous amount of stability in the GOP’s leadership here in the state, so a succession coming next year is a sizable story.

If we understand the rules correctly, in order to run for chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party you’ve got to be on the State Central Committee. That doesn’t necessarily mean someone currently outside the Central Committee can’t do it, though – they’d just have to make their way onto that body in advance of next March’s election, which is easier than you’d think it is. If you’re pals with the committee member who represents your legislative district you can get them to resign and then you get yourself nominated to take their place, and most of the time those nominations sail through at the next meeting of the Central Committee. Et voila – you’re qualified to run for party chairman. Then you nominate your pal who stepped aside for you and he/she goes back on the committee.

All the names on Alford’s list have some strengths and weaknesses, making it interesting to speculate whether that’s actually the list of who’s going to be running for this thing when it finally heats up a year from now. Ivey could be an attractive candidate, but one wonders how on earth he’s going to have the time to do it – he owns a mechanical contracting firm which services nuclear power plants, plus he’s in the state legislature. Plus be state GOP chairman? There are only 24 hours in a day, and nearly everyone in the party wants to see it become a louder and more aggressive voice. That requires taking on projects, which requires a lot larger budget, and therefore requires a great deal more fundraising than is currently done.

Villere isn’t poor. His florist shop in Metairie does fine. But he’s a small businessman, not a big-money player. The way political fundraising generally works is the vast majority of the money will come from a relatively tiny class of super-rich people, who can stroke a check for $25,000 for the asking in order to fund an ad campaign or a voter registration drive, etc. It’s always been tough if you’re middle class to consistently rack up those checks – and it’s a testament to Villere that he’s had as successful run as he has in growing the party in Louisiana over the 15 years he’s been its chairman without being that big-money fundraiser. We’d submit that to replace Villere what the Louisiana GOP needs first and foremost is someone who can get on the phone and rack up those big checks from the money people, so that the party isn’t dependent on any of its statewide politicians or the RNC in Washington for its annual budget.

That could be where McKnight, an insurance broker in Baton Rouge, comes in. He ran, and lost, against Dan Claitor for the state Senate in 2015 by a 51-35 margin in the primary, but during that race McKnight wowed observers by the sizable fundraising haul he made as a first-time candidate. Most rookies, particularly those going up against an incumbent, are pathetically short-stacked when it comes to campaign dollars, but McKnight went more or less toe-to-toe with an entrenched incumbent possessed of unanimous name recognition. McKnight has a reputation as a thorough conservative, though he raised money from pretty much anybody with a checkbook and a gripe about Claitor. He’s potentially the strongest of the Young Turk potential candidates on Alford’s list, and he might be more viable than Babcock, who’s more of a grass-roots/Tea Party candidate with less of a record as a fundraiser.

Buckels and Gurvich have both been around the Louisiana GOP scene for a long time, and have put the time in. Gurvich might be the odds-on favorite for the job if for no other reason than that he’s been trying to run for it since before Villere got it, and has had to back out virtually every time Villere has decided to give another term a go. Gurvich has an advantage on some of the others in that he actually is a big money player; his company, New Orleans Private Patrol, has been prominent in the private security business in the Big Easy for a long time. That said, while Gurvich definitely plays he isn’t known as one of the state’s giant donors. OpenSecrets.org shows him having given $9,750 to the Louisiana GOP during the 2015-16 federal election cycle; he made a $2700 contribution to John Kennedy’s campaign, $1,000 to Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, and $500 each to Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) and Joe Heck (Nevada). In previous cycles he’s made sizable donations to Mitt Romney and John McCain for president and he was a big backer of Joseph Cao’s congressional run in 2008 and again in 2010, as well as somewhat nominal donations for congressional and senatorial candidates elsewhere. On the state level Gurvich has contributed some $18,900 to candidates since 2010 – $5,000 of it to David Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign in 2014 as it launched, and another $7,500 to Marlin Gusman, the Orleans Parish sheriff.

One way to be a big fundraiser is to cough up a big check of your own and then challenge other like-minded folks to match it. Gurvich could be such a fundraiser as GOP chair were he interested in spending the money.

As for Buckels, his problem might be that he works for RedFlex, the red-light camera company. Not that there’s anything wrong with his job there – he’s the sales manager for the Southeast for that company – or anything else on his resume (Buckels has served the state GOP as both its treasurer and its vice chairman), it’s just that everybody hates those red light cameras. And if the guy who convinced the politicians to buy and install them is the chairman of the party the Louisiana GOP will get a black eye every time a red-light camera ticket comes in the mail. Nobody is offended by Villere’s roses and orchids; this could be a bit different scenario.

That leaves Wilfong, the Baton Rouge political consultant – he’s the guy who prints everybody’s yard signs when it’s election season – who Alford says is “actively campaigning for the chairmanship.” Wilfong has been around the state party for a while and knows where all the bodies are buried, and the speculation is that he’s putting himself up for chairman when what he’s really looking for is the executive director position currently held by Dore’, who some think will be ready to move on when Villere does. The ED job makes more sense for Wilfong than the chairmanship does – the chairmanship isn’t a paid position, and there is no money to make it one, and nobody is going to particularly like the idea that the state chairman of the GOP is also the guy you go to for your yard signs or other political consulting work. On the other hand, Dore’s law firm does opposition research work for political candidates and there hasn’t been any particular protest about that while he’s been the ED, so perhaps if Wilfong had that job and still did yard signs it would be fine.

But it’s all quite early for the race to succeed Villere to be heating up. Many of the folks we talked to after Alford’s article came out today reacted along the lines of “already?” It could be that the real candidates for the job are nowhere near the surface yet.

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