Editor’s Note: This post is Part Two of a three-part series discussing the role and performance of political consultants in Louisiana elections. For Part One, click here.
This is an idea which has generated quite a bit of discussion in some Republican circles this fall – particularly among some of the institutional players in state politics in advance of the 2019 election cycle which is about to start any minute now. We’ll get into why there is a discussion of a blacklist and what’s motivating it, but actions by consultants in the Secretary of State race have precipitated a feeling among some that Louisiana’s political process is being corrupted, and many of its voters cheated, by unscrupulous and incompetent consultants in it for themselves.
Let’s understand something at the outset, though – no political consultant in Louisiana does more damage to the quest to elect good people to political office in this state than does our jungle primary, which time and again produces substandard runoff races. The most famous of these is obviously the 1991 governor’s race which ended in a runoff between Edwin Edwards and David Duke, but there have been lots of other examples of jungle-primary runoffs that wouldn’t have happened had Louisiana embraced party primaries like most other states. But the jungle primary isn’t the only problem with the system in this state – something else is wrong as well. Namely, that here the runoff election is usually less than six weeks after the primary. That means there is no cooling-off period during which losing candidates can decompress before being asked to endorse those who made the runoff, and the opportunities to absorb the campaigns of the also-rans are limited. Voters also don’t get a break from the constant drumbeat of political ads on TV and radio, something that in other states, where the primaries are often in the spring and summer, makes for a superior experience to the grind we endure from Labor Day to past Thanksgiving.
Any true reform of the political process should start with bringing back party primaries and spreading out the primaries and runoffs. Most of what’s wrong with elections in Louisiana would be sorted out by the market if such order were restored.
And we think there will be a push made – maybe in next year’s legislative session, maybe in 2020 when the whole makeup of state government might be completely different than it is now – to institute those reforms.
But in conversations we’ve had with some of the movers and shakers on the institutional political scene, there is a sense that the consultants need to be reined in. Too many bad experiences have been had. And perhaps a blacklist is the answer.
What do we mean be “institutional players” in this context? For example, on the Republican side there’s the party, there’s the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, who operates four political action committees which play heavily particularly in state legislative races, there are the various trade associations like the Louisiana Chemical Association, Associated Building Contractors of Louisiana, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association and several others, and there are groups like the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority. Each of these will not only directly fund campaigns with a contribution, but they’ll also back candidates with third-party advertising like radio and TV spots, digital advertising and direct mailers. It’s not uncommon in a contested legislative race for these groups to throw $100,000 or $200,000 behind a candidate of their choice.
And while some of them do have relatively deep pockets, nobody in Louisiana has George Soros or Tom Steyer or Koch Brothers type cash to spend. When they cut loose $50,000 on a candidate whose campaign turns into a disaster, they feel it – and it drives them crazy to see that money wasted.
Again and again, in talking with them, stupid mistakes made by candidates and their consultants show up as the source of irritation. One told me but for dumb moves made by a couple of political consultants who keep popping up they’d have four more House seats and two more Senate seats in the Louisiana legislature occupied by reliable votes for small government and low taxes. See why the idea of a blacklist makes sense to them?
And those dumb mistakes don’t just involve poor media strategy, or bad messaging, or misuse of campaign funds. What seems to be an increasing problem is consultants ginning up candidates to run in races where they can’t win, or keeping them in races they need to get out of, solely in an effort to reel in as much in retainers and fees as possible.
And what happens when candidates who shouldn’t be in a race don’t get out when it’s obvious they can’t win? The Secretary of State’s race is a pretty good example. Lots of conservatives complained to us after we endorsed Kyle Ardoin that we should have backed Rick Edmonds based on his record as a rock-solid state legislator. We would have liked to. But with A.G. Crowe and Heather Cloud in the race – and in various polls one or both of them actually placing ahead of Edmonds – there was not much chance Edmonds could win.
Crowe shouldn’t have been in the race. He ended up spending almost a quarter of a million dollars to get little more than 70,000 votes, and most of what he spent was paying consultants. Crowe was approached more than once by the institutional players about the idea of getting out of the way and letting his voters consolidate around a conservative alternative, and he said no – and not only that, we’re told that yesterday he was talking about jumping back into the Secretary of State’s race in December, in preparation for the regular election in 2019.
This is the kind of thing that happens when your consultants are getting paid a fortune and see you as a meal ticket. Good advice, when you’re on pace to get four or five percent of the vote, is to tell you to get out and save your money, and see if you can broker a deal with another candidate for your support. But doing that means an end to that sweet retainer money.
Then there’s Edmonds, who gave his campaign $170,000 worth of loans out of his personal finances in order to go up on TV at the end of the campaign. His messaging in those spots was essentially to attack Ardoin, who by that point was very clearly going to finish ahead of Edmonds. There was no chance that $170,000 would affect the election as much as it would affect Edmonds’ retirement savings, and a responsible consultant would not have let him spend it. But that money went out, and commissions for making a media buy got paid, nonetheless.
Little wonder the institutional players are spooked.
So the idea being quietly discussed is to cobble together a blacklist of the bad actors in the consulting game – meaning that when folks deciding to run for office go in search of an endorsement and resources from LCCM, or LABI, or whomever, one of the questions in the vetting process is going to be who’s on their campaign team. And if the wrong answer is given, and somebody on the blacklist is named, they’re going to get told “Look, based on bad experiences we’ve had we can’t back you if that’s who you’re going to have running your campaign. Hire somebody else and let’s talk again.”
And to get on the blacklist, there would be three criteria which would have to be met.
First, that the consultant in question would consistently lose. As in, they never – or almost never – win.
Second, that not only does the consultant always lose, but that they lose in spectacular fashion. For example, the same consultant in charge of Crowe’s race also ran the campaign of an incumbent mayor who got 27 percent in a three-way race and lost to a challenger who is under investigation for malfeasance in office.
And third, that the consultant doesn’t always lose and often in spectacular fashion but that they also display a pattern of raking their clients over the coals with extravagant fees.
There are consultants fitting all three of those criteria, and in a competitive marketplace the invisible hand would sweep them off the playing field. The blacklist would be a way to facilitate that, because some of these guys need a new line of work – and with the statewide cycle coming up and potentially almost 100 legislative races which could decide the direction of Louisiana’s political future on the table, good candidates saddled with bad consultants can ruin opportunities to make things better.
But at the same time, while there are some very good consultants in Louisiana who do a very good job for their clients, there aren’t enough quality people to go around. That’s why some of the institutional players are also trying to ramp up training for campaign workers in an effort to find a new generation of consultants and operatives who do things the right way.
That training can’t happen fast enough. We need some higher standards, and some better performance, around here.