BAYHAM: The Louisiana Secretary of State Race in 2018 (And Beyond)

Louisiana was largely left out of the national political drama of Tuesday as all of their congressmen were easily returned to office without serious opposition and we didn’t have a US Senate race on the ballot.

However there was one Louisiana race that caused me a great degree of heartburn: Secretary of State.

The special election was triggered when Tom Schedler was hit with sexual harassment allegations, leaving his deputy, Kyle Ardoin, to succeed him in an office that was now going to be on the 2018 ballot for the balance of the Slidell Republican’s term and ten months later when it along with all of the other statewide offices would be decided.

Ardoin had publicly stated that he did not intend to run for the post he was holding in the interim, perhaps hoping to remain at the office in some capacity.

Interestingly enough no candidate of stature opted to seek the office. Not State Representative Paul Hollis (who has explored other statewide offices) nor State Senator Neil Riser, who had just come off an unsuccessful statewide bid for treasurer.

It was disappointing that the race did not draw a major contender on the Republican side because it is arguably the second most important office in Louisiana due to its role in conducting elections.

And one does not need to be a student of political science to be cognizant of the state’s sordid reputation when it comes to free and fair elections.

During a US Senate investigation into Huey Long’s political machine operations, Texas Senator Tom Connally remarked that if his colleagues thought they knew a lot about politics that they should go down to Louisiana to take a postgraduate course.

And the gentleman from the Lone Star State was not paying us a compliment.

As late as the 1970s, congressional elections in Louisiana had to be rerun due to irregularities and “resurrected” voters providing the margin of victory. In 1979, the gubernatorial primary was very likely stolen from then lieutenant governor Jimmy Fitzmorris.

Things began to improve in 1987 with the election of Fox McKeithen, a Democrat who switched parties in the midst of his first term.

Fox did not put his thumb on the scales for his new party but gave the Republicans an opportunity to fairly compete. And it was under his watch that the rickety mechanical voting machines that could be compromised with matchsticks were replaced with modern electronic machines.

People began to have confidence in democracy in Louisiana and with the exception of a brief window after McKeithen’s death, Republican candidates won in every election for the post since 1991.

But things looked iffy this year.

Schedler’s sudden departure complicated things and a consensus Republican did not enter the over the three day qualifying period. And that was when Ardoin made his move.

The interim-Secretary of State’s decision rankled his fellow Republican candidates because he became the immediate frontrunner, though he had to build a campaign from the ground up overnight.

And while the GOP side was crowded, only two Democrats signed up.

Under Louisiana’s open primary system and without a high profile Republican candidate in the race, the prospect of an all-Democratic runoff was very real. And had this race played out last year, it almost certainly would have produced an all-Democratic runoff with Orleans Parish representing a disproportionate share of the state’s vote total.

Though the incumbent, Ardoin was not the consensus GOP candidate, as his stint as a lobbyist led to him donating to a number of federal and state Democratic candidates.

The next strongest Republican candidate was Jefferson Parish Republican State Representative Julie Stokes, though she was distrusted as being too friendly to the Democratic administration in Baton Rouge.

At the August meeting of the Republican State Central Committee, a surprise motion was made to endorse former State Senator AG Crowe, Baton Rouge State Representative Rick Edmonds, and Turkey Creek Mayor Heather Cloud.

The secretive nature of the move and its advocacy by those with a relationship with the Crowe campaign made the gambit suspicious.

The concept of endorsing the bottom three Republican candidates seemed not only absurd but counter productive. Why incentivize the three most conservative candidates to remain in the race when if anything at least two needed to drop out?

The State GOP considered holding a special meeting of the governing body to make a last minute endorsement behind the most electable conservative but the candidates and their consultants refused to budge.

They were all going to be in the runoff, they said.

Folks weren’t sipping the Kool Aid, they were doing the backstroke in it.

It had all the makings of a game of chicken between streetcars. The State Republican Party not seeking to contribute to the chaos of the situation, wisely pulled the plug on the meeting and opted not to interfere. The party leadership trusted the voters and they came through where the candidates and their teams refused to budge for the good of the party and conservatism.

Powered by name recognition and a well-timed media buy, Ardoin attained a low plurality and led the primary against unfunded Democrat Gwen Collins-Greenup. The latter pulled off an upset as the other Democrat, Renee Fontenot Free, had the support of the Democratic machinery and the inner city ballots. In an ironic twist the Democrats were burned by their own identity politics racket.

While Ardoin is the favorite, there is no shortage of hard feelings on the Republican side.

Thus far only Thomas Kennedy (who spent less than Collins-Greenup) and Heather Cloud have endorsed Ardoin, with the rest of the field bitter about his sudden entry.

Had Ardoin not jumped in, the “name recognition” voters that went to the incumbent would have broken to Kennedy or both of the Democrats. It’s unlikely Crowe, Edmonds, or Cloud would have benefited that much more as they weren’t able to build sizable warchests for an office for which it’s very difficult to raise campaign funds.

Republicans have spent the past three years complaining about what happened in 2015, when a three-way GOP field tore itself to shreds and facilitated the election of Democrat John Bel Edwards to the governor’s mansion.

If Republicans don’t coalesce quickly behind Ardoin, it would demonstrate a lack of understanding about the importance of the office and ignorance about what happened in 2015.

The first battle of the 2019 election cycle is the December 2018 runoff.

It’s time for Republicans to either put up or shut up.

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