Among the electoral results in last night’s special elections which produced John Schroder as Louisiana’s new state treasurer and LaToya Cantrell as New Orleans’ new mayor-elect was a surprisingly (to some) large margin by which Mark Wright defeated Rob Maness for Schroder’s House District 77 seat in St. Tammany Parish.
I’ll preface this by saying I like Col. Maness personally, and I respect him a great deal. Rob is a genuine man of principle, with a heart of a servant, and I think he’s telling the truth when he says he runs for office because he wants to serve the people and not for any other motive. He’s also a rock-solid conservative who would unquestionably govern according to those principles if given an opportunity.
But the problem is, Rob’s a really lousy candidate and it’s now fairly clear he’s never going to win an election to a major public office unless he makes fundamental changes in how he goes about it. That’s a shame, but it makes clear that the connection in politics between the sizzle and the steak isn’t the closest – and running and governing require two pretty different skill sets. We won’t know for sure whether Rob has the one, because of his complete lack of the other.
The media coverage of the race for District 77 came down to Maness famously telling an out-of-state lefty crank caller to his radio show “Blow me,” and then unleashing a letter to the editor taking a poke at The Advocate’s Stephanie Grace for ripping him for it. But those antics weren’t what cost him the race, despite the narrative that Rob melted down at the end, etc. Nor was the colossal mistake of buying radio time on WGSO-AM as a campaign expense; any political consultant worth his salt could have told Rob nobody listens to radio shows a political candidate has to buy the time for other than his opponent and reporters who are looking for him to make a gaffe. You’re far, far better off doing a podcast or a Facebook Live, if for no other reason than you don’t pay somebody else for the privilege of being on air in large doses where you’re likely to say something that gets you in trouble.
No, what cost him the race was a reprise of the same thing that has plagued his prior campaigns; namely, the One True Conservative meme he’s pushed from the start of his political career.
In Rob’s first Senate campaign, that meme – which in Maness’ case holds him up as the only conservative voice in an Establishment/leftist-dominated wilderness, and bolsters his plucky longshot campaign with lots of small donations from patriots across the country while he speaks truth to power – had some currency to it. He was running against Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy, an incumbent Democrat and a sitting U.S. Congressman best described as a center-right Republican, and therefore the positioning was fine – or it would have been had Louisiana been a party-primary state.
And of course it isn’t, which means Maness was never going to get anywhere selling the One True Conservative meme in a U.S. Senate race.
Nobody in 2014 cared about putting a Ted Cruz, Mike Lee or Rand Paul in the Senate from Louisiana. In 2014, what the voters wanted was to get rid of Mary Landrieu and put a Republican in the seat. So for a jungle primary in that race, when Maness came along bashing Cassidy as a RINO and an Establishment puke and saying there was no difference between Cassidy and Landrieu, all he did was bring bad blood where there shouldn’t have been. This would have been OK if there had been a Republican primary and three or four months’ worth of cooling-off/reloading time between the primary and the general election. But in a jungle primary with the general election to follow five weeks later, the practical concerns of beating Landrieu were far, far more pressing than how perfect a conservative the state could get in the Senate to a large majority of the state’s Republican voters. That’s why despite pulling a not-terrible 14 percent in the primary Maness was still beaten 3-to-1 by Cassidy, who went on to victory in unseating Landrieu – like everybody wanted.
Not to mention the fact Maness wasn’t from Louisiana. As a military man he’s lived all over, which is probably a good qualification for the U.S. Senate but it’s a negative for a first-time statewide candidate in a state where some 80 percent of the population was born and raised within its borders. If you’re Maness you’re better served to start your political career shooting for a lot smaller office than the U.S. Senate.
Then he ran for the Senate again, this time in 2016. On the surface it would have seemed the 2016 race would have been a better opportunity for Maness; after all, rather than replacing Landrieu this time we were replacing David Vitter, so it only made sense to find the most conservative Republican we could who would uphold the state’s ideological contribution to that body – not to mention the fact there was no serious danger of the seat falling into Democrat hands; had Maness made the runoff against Foster Campbell, the guess is he would have won fairly easily.
The problem was the field. Rep. Charles Boustany got in, which in Maness’ case was fine given that Boustany presents as an Establishment type, but so did Rep. John Fleming – a better-funded and better-known (at least nationally) conservative sharing many of the same strengths in his resume but with a stronger donor base and a better chance to win. Once Fleming got in, Maness had no path to victory in 2016 and he was actually doing the conservative movement a disservice to stay in. That state treasurer John Kennedy was also in, and Kennedy perfected his pitch as a conservative on the 2016 campaign trail (whether he’s legitimately one or not still isn’t known after almost a year in office), made it even more hopeless – and to make matters worse David Duke emerged from the sewers to offer his own white nationalist spiel that the state’s media happily mischaracterized as conservatism akin to Maness’ message.
Well before Election Day Maness should have exited the race, making his deal with either Fleming or Kennedy in order to get the kind of support for his next run which might have cleared the field and insured him a place on the political ladder. But he blew that opportunity – so badly, in fact, that when he was approached by Fleming supporter Paul Dickson, who is one of Louisiana’s bigger political donors, with an overture to support Fleming in return for an alliance, Maness went ballistic, publicly alleged corruption and criminality, and in so doing made himself toxic to the state’s Republican donors – many of whom are ideologically in lock-step with Rob.
Maness got all of four percent of the vote in the 2016 Senate primary, down from 14 percent two years earlier.
It was at that point that he decided to run yet again. And in fact, what he wanted to run for was the treasurer’s job. He was talked out of that by people who had his best interests at heart, and convinced to start at a manageable level. So he ran for the District 77 seat.
That seat was winnable. But the problem was that Wright, who had been a conservative activist in St. Tammany and had served the movement’s cause for years before taking the plunge and running for the city council in Covington (in other words starting small and moving up, rather than the opposite approach Maness took), had already entered the race. Wright had already learned the retail political skills required to win a state legislative race and he was already building a coalition capable of winning.
Meanwhile, Maness’ approach was to immediately cast himself as the One True Conservative and bash Wright as a Washington lobbyist (which was a stretch; he’s vice president of American Waterway Operators, a trade organization for tugboat and barge companies) when Maness himself is a registered lobbyist, and to trash him as having made crooked deals with the state’s party establishment. That was never going to work, because Wright was a known commodity. People on the Northshore know him better than they know Rob, they know Mark is a conservative with a record of governing like one on that city council, and they like Wright better. And it especially didn’t resonate that Mark was a “career politician;” you don’t get to run for office three times in four years and call anybody else a professional politician. When you start running for office you become a politician, period. Accusing others of that when they run less often than you do simply pisses voters off.
And it turns out that the enemies he made rebuffing Fleming and his supporters came back to bite him, as a number of the state’s donors backed a PAC which trashed Maness in the District 77 race. Whether their ads were effective or not we don’t know – that the PAC was run by J Hudson, who also recently served as a consultant for the House Republican delegation, might have caused more of a stir than its messaging did – but they nevertheless represented money spent in the race against Maness.
Conservatism sells on the Northshore. If Rob wanted to sell it, what he needed to do was to call himself the best-positioned candidate to take the fight to Louisiana’s left-wing Democrat governor and to blow the whistle on all of John Bel Edwards’ corrupt, redistributive practices in Baton Rouge. The narrative would have gone that it’ll take somebody with national credibility to take Edwards down and set the state for a conservative rebirth in 2019, and Rob is the guy with the stroke to do that. And then to say nothing whatsoever negative about Mark Wright, who Rob could say he considers an ally in that fight and the day after the election they’ll work together for the same cause. And so on.
He didn’t do that, and just like in the 2014 Senate race there were an army of social media trolls trashing Wright and everyone with something nice to say about him, which Maness never bothered to reel in. The polls showed those tactics were a loser, and yet he stuck with them. No surprise, then, that after leading the four-way primary with 36.6 percent of the vote Maness only managed 42 percent last night in a 16-point shellacking by Wright.
So where does he go from here? Are we done with Rob Maness the candidate?
My guess is he’ll make one more run. Jack Donohue, the state senator from Covington, is term-limited in 2019. Depending on who else would jump into that race, it could be winnable for Rob. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took a crack at it.
But if he’s going into the breach once more, Maness needs to try to reinvent himself a little. He needs to stop trying to sell himself as the One True Conservative, because the voters don’t give a damn about that when there are other conservatives in the race (and in a district like Donahue’s, virtually everybody who’ll run can make the case for their conservatism). Instead, pick issues the voters actually care about and become an expert on them – and do things to promote the right side of those issues away from simply running for office on them – meaning spend 2018 as an advocate rather than a candidate. Further, help other people win. Collect allies. Serve the movement locally.
Those are the things he needs to be doing – not doing them over the last four years is why he hasn’t been winning. Nobody thinks Maness is really on the team, and that’s why they don’t want to give him a leadership role within it. If he can’t fix that at this late date, he’s only going to waste his time and ours continuing to run for office.