The 2019 Gubernatorial Electoral Scenario That Keeps Me Up At Night…

I hesitate to even bring this topic up, because we’re too far out from the all-important 2019 elections for it to be anything other than idle speculation, but upon consideration I’m going to post it as a warning as to how things can go badly wrong for conservatives and Republicans in 2019.

We’ve already discussed here at the Hayride the danger of a “crabs in a bucket” scenario, in which a failure to clear the 2019 gubernatorial field so that Republican voters can unite around one challenger to John Bel Edwards results in a multitude of underfunded GOP candidates who spend the primary season beating each other up and largely leaving Edwards untouched. Most people think that’s unlikely to come about in the event John Kennedy gets into the race, and I would endorse that view.

We’ll find out a little more about the 2019 field next week, when qualifying comes and goes for this fall’s midterm federal elections. Word is the Democrats are trying to keep candidates out of the 5th District race Ralph Abraham will be running for re-election in, and there is a reason for that.

Abraham’s district is centered around the Monroe-Alexandria corridor, but it has fingers dipping into the Baton Rouge (via the Feliciana Parishes and coming as close as St. Francisville) and New Orleans (via Washington Parish and its proximity to the Northshore) media markets. So for Abraham, who would very much like to run for governor in 2019 and probably will do so unless he becomes convinced he can’t win, the idea scenario is to draw a weak Democrat opponent incapable of beating him and then use his re-election campaign in the same way Kennedy used the token opposition he drew in the 2015 state Treasurer’s race – as an opportunity to build himself up for a different race. How that would be done is to play heavily in those two South Louisiana media markets with biographical ads and a discussion about how Louisiana’s dearth of good leadership is holding the state back which Abraham can help fix.

It’s as good a plan as can be employed, and Edwards’ camp knows it. So they’ve been discouraging Democrats from running. What they want is for Abraham to run unopposed and close off his ability to essentially run a pre-campaign for governor disguised as a congressional race.

If he doesn’t draw any opposition, Abraham’s plan will probably be to announce for governor straight away as soon as congressional qualifying has come and gone, and proceed to travel the state hammering away at Edwards and touting a conservative vision to bring Louisiana back from its current economic and political slump. But all the publicly-released polling on 2019 so far shows Abraham has a long way to go in generating the branding and name identification he’s going to need to become a serious contender in the race.

And whatever work he does could very well be wiped out if Kennedy gets into the race. Kennedy has so far sucked all the proverbial oxygen from the room with his periodic potshots at Edwards and cryptic statements of consideration for 2019. It’s going to be difficult for Abraham, or any other Republican hopeful, to raise a lot of money until it’s known one way or the other whether Kennedy is in. If the Senator does enter the race, there will be a lot of pressure on Abraham to get out – party insiders fear the “crabs in a bucket’ scenario after seeing it play out in the 2015 race and produce Edwards as the governor.

That said, Kennedy has some weaknesses which won’t likely prove fatal in a head to head race against Edwards but could be problematic in a different scenario. The perception that Kennedy runs for everything under the sun is one such weakness, and the perception that he’s much more of an opportunist than a stalwart conservative is another. There are people who think he can’t be trusted – though the poll Kennedy released last month on the 2019 race shows him ahead of Edwards 51-37, and that serves to prove the incumbent governor is likely less than capable of exploiting those holes in Kennedy’s armor.

Which gives rise to the nightmare scenario.

As we know, Louisiana has the nation’s worst economy. Louisiana also has a massive outmigration problem. Louisiana is losing out on economic opportunities left and right – this week’s news that Bollinger Shipyards will be building Coast Guard icebreakers in Tampa, rather than Louisiana, is the latest in the ongoing drumbeat of losses.

So what does that do for the 2019 electoral cycle? Let’s start with the premise, supported by the result in Kennedy’s poll showing a generic Republican throttling Edwards 51-35, that by this time next year Edwards will be seen as a badly damaged incumbent very likely to lose re-election. The real question would be what, or who, should replace him. And you’re quite likely at some point to see polling indicating Louisiana’s voters are desperate for a businessman, rather than a politician, to be running the state because only a businessman can pull the economy out of its swoon.

And this is an attractive prospect, but it would have to depend on who the businessman is. This being Louisiana, that’s a question not lending itself to unbridled optimism.

We’ll throw out Baton Rouge billionaire Jim Bernhard as an example. Bernhard, who pocketed some $3 billion, according to reports, when the Shaw Group was sold to CBI a few years back, made some waves earlier this year when he gave a speech trashing Louisiana’s current direction and the failure, he said, of Baton Rouge to stack up against other cities like Phoenix, Austin, Nashville and Raleigh which have both a state capitol and a major university in them. Bernhard has never run for anything but he’s definitely political – he’s the former chairman of the Louisiana Democrat Party, and he built Shaw into a Fortune 500 company largely on the strength of government contracts.

So what if a Jim Bernhard were to enter a Kennedy-Edwards 2019 race? What if Bernhard were to self-finance an independent run with $20 million of his own cash? What would that look like?

It would contain a number of elements that could greatly disrupt the race as it’s currently being considered.

First, Bernhard could base his campaign on the prospect stated above – you need a businessman to fix the state’s public fisc and economy.

Second, he could trash both Edwards and Kennedy as politicians who talk all day but never solve anything.

And third, he could run on the things he said in that speech back in January – that Louisiana has to invest in education to lift its people out of poverty, that the state needs to spend heavily on infrastructure to fix its terrible roads (and that if that means increasing gas taxes so be it), and third, that something has to be done about the runaway crime problem in Baton Rouge and other cities in Louisiana.

Bernhard’s message in that speech was exactly what you’d expect from the Disgruntled Businessman Running For Office, Democrat Version – and while we’ve seen no evidence he’s preparing a 2019 campaign, it’s hard to argue against the prospect that’s what it would look like. You’ve got the anti-crime populist message that hits Edwards for his criminal justice reform, which will be a political liability for him next year, you’ve got the education piece which brings in the TOPS moms, higher education people, teacher unions and other special interest crowds and you’ve got the road construction/Associated General Contractors folks jumping up and down about finally getting the lucrative bridge contracts.

And if you’re a Democrat afraid that Edwards is a hopeless cause, this is your life raft.

If Bernhard should knock Edwards out of the runoff, he’s now against Kennedy in a race he defines as whether Louisianans want a doer or a talker running the state. And Bernhard makes a special appeal to the suburban soft Republican voters in places like Jefferson Parish and Baton Rouge who were with Jay Dardenne in 2015 before migrating to Edwards in the runoff; if he got the Democrat vote plus those “RINO” voters, it could well be enough to win.

And if Bernhard knocked Kennedy out of the runoff you’d have two Democrats left standing. Bernhard would likely win with Republicans joining him.

And yes, this would be an improvement over John Bel Edwards. But no, it would not signal the painful, transformational creative-destruction reform plan Louisiana so badly needs. If anything it would be one more way for the state’s Powers That Be to hang on to power under a different banner.

Again, we’re not saying Bernhard will run. We have no evidence he’s looking to do that. What we can say is that if someone like him got in, it could be the best way for the Democrats to keep running their current game even if the voters show a strong desire to end it by deposing Edwards from office.

Is this a likely scenario? It’s far too early to say. Is it plausible? Absolutely.

Before you scoff at this, keep in mind that most Louisiana gubernatorial elections are won by underdogs nobody gave a chance to at the beginning of the race. That was true of Dave Treen, it was true of Buddy Roemer, of Mike Foster, of Kathleen Blanco, and of John Bel Edwards. There is zero reason to doubt it can be true of someone like Bernhard in 2019.

And it’s one reason why Republicans need to greatly improve their political game in this state over the next 12 months and change if there is to be any hope of a turnaround in Louisiana in the next decade.

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