Some sort of surprising news in the last day or so around the Louisiana governor’s race has it that Rep. Garret Graves, whose name has been floated for weeks as a potential candidate, is out – but the faction within Louisiana politics which is desperately seeking someone to run in a “moderate” lane to oppose Jeff Landry as the Republican standard bearer might have a candidate after all.
There’s nothing really surprising about the letter he released to his supporters yesterday. It was obvious Garret Graves has better things to do than run for governor. He’s chairing a congressional committee charged with more or less redesigning the entire federal government in advance of the 2024 election. Assumedly the GOP will take over the Senate (some 24 Democrat-held seats come up for re-election against just 10 Republican-held seats, and a net gain of two is all the GOP needs), and it’s entirely possible there will be a Republican president rather than a second Joe Biden term, so the work Graves is in charge of isn’t just an academic exercise.
Abandoning that to run for governor, when it’s a bit late in the game and there isn’t any evidence that you can win anyway doesn’t make sense, so Graves opted out.
But then there’s this…
During an impromptu meeting with reporters after his appearance at a March 7 Jefferson Chamber of Commerce event, business lobbyist Stephen Waguespack did not confirm reports that he plans to enter the race for Louisiana governor.
But he definitely didn’t deny them either.
The president and CEO of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, who is a Republican, said he’s taking time to reflect and decide. The conversation took place in a ballroom at the Airport Hilton after Waguespack shared a stage with Michael Hecht of Greater New Orleans Inc. to talk about the business groups’ legislative priorities.
“There’s been a ton of positive reinforcement and calls coming in,” Waguespack told reporters. “And it’s been overwhelming and humbling. My wife Colleen and I are taking a look at them, praying, reflecting, and we’re talking to family and friends. I think this is one of the most important elections in generations here, and so we want to do our part in any way we can to make sure that’s an effective one.”
Combined with online leaks over the last 24 hours, that statement sounds a lot like it’s coming from a man preparing to throw his hat in the ring. If he does, the race would gain a business-friendly candidate with years of experience lobbying the Louisiana Legislature. Before that, he served as former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff. Since 2013, Waguespack has led LABI, which is one of the state’s most powerful business groups.
He said his current job has helped him understand the priorities of Louisiana business owners and citizens.
“I’ve spent most of my career trying to help the state reform itself and reach new heights,” he said. “We spent the last several months going around the state, visiting local business leaders, local community leaders and hearing their concerns: better school systems, safer communities, competing with other states in the South, keeping our kids at home.”
And from Jeremy Alford of LAPolitics.com’s weekly Tracker feature…
GOVERNOR (GOP): Congressman Garret Graves is out and it appears as if LABI President Stephen Waguespack will be in, as early as tomorrow possibly. There’s a lot of chatter about Waguespack pulling donors off of Attorney General Jeff Landry, but so far there’s no avalanche of note. A half dozen donors contacted by The Tracker said they’re sticking with Landry while others indicate they may simply give to both. In fact, reporters will receive a press release this morning from mega-donors Boysie Bollinger and Joe Canizaro endorsing Landry. “Jeff has the courage and determination to effect real reforms to turn our state around and start a rebirth of jobs, industries, and opportunities in Louisiana. Together with our congressional delegation and the state legislature, we have a great team and Jeff is the right person to lead us into a great future,” the two men say in a joint statement. Looking ahead, Grigsby, Eddie Rispone, Dave Roberts and a group of others are still hosting a fundraiser for Landry next week, on March 16, in Baton Rouge.
So today or tomorrow it sounds like we’ll get the official announcement and Waguespack will be in.
What does that do to the race?
First, does Waguespack fit into the RINO/moderate lane we’ve discussed repeatedly here at The Hayride? Sort of.
We’ve known Wags for a long time and consider him a friend. When he had more time and inspiration he was a frequent contributor here at the site, and LABI has been a cherished advertiser and sponsor here really since The Hayride’s inception. So you really won’t see anything negative said about Waguespack’s gubernatorial candidacy and while there have been some angry reactions from conservatives already supporting Landry and even John Schroder and Sharon Hewitt that we’ve seen and heard, we won’t go there.
Frankly, we think he would be a good governor. We think any of the now five GOP candidates would be marked improvements over the disastrous wannabe tyrant currently in office.
Is Wags a RINO? No. He’s a conservative. Is his conservatism distinct from Landry’s? Yeah, to an extent.
At least, in his role as LABI president it certainly has been.
For example, Waguespack and LAGOP chairman Louis Gurvich got into a disagreement a couple of years ago over a statement Waguespack made disparaging the cultural battles the party was weighing in on, and specifically the bill brought by former House Education Committee chairman Ray Garofalo which would have banned teaching Critical Race Theory in the state. Waguespack’s position was that Louisiana has better things to do than focus on CRT and other such battles – keeping “trans-women” out of girls’ sports and the like.
Does that mean Waguespack is for teaching Louisiana school kids that all white people are racist and America was founded on slavery, which we know is being taught, for example, at Baton Rouge Magnet High School? Of course not. But as the president of essentially the state Chamber of Commerce his job is to push economic development and improvements to the state’s business climate, try to spark job growth and increase prosperity. They pay him very well to do that, so it’s what he’s going to focus on.
And as LABI’s president he has a constituency – which is LABI’s membership. And a whole lot of those members are big corporations who do business in Louisiana. So the representatives of those companies who, for example, serve on LABI’s board might very well be the woke types who actually would like to see “trans-women” treated the same as the real McCoy, or who think America was built on slavery. It being separate from LABI’s core mission to fight those battles, for Wags to steer clear of them and signal that they aren’t a priority was simply an intelligent thing to do in his role.
Ah, but now you’re running for governor as a Republican if you’re Waguespack, and these issues do move voters.
And what’s an interesting question that we haven’t seen polling to prove an answer to but have some suspicions about is whether Louisiana’s voters are more interested in culture this year than they are economics.
Because let’s face it – if economics is all you care about, what are you still doing in Louisiana? Two terms of John Bel Edwards should have run you off by now.
So can a purely economic message, and an attempt to draw Landry into the same debate that Wags had with Gurvich two years ago, serve as a golden ticket into the runoff with the Democrat Shawn Wilson?
We aren’t going to say no. Historically, a candidate like Waguespack who runs on a “reform” agenda and eschews the cultural questions, which would look a bit like running from the center in the context of this race, could very well win. Buddy Roemer did it, Kathleen Blanco did it, Mike Foster did it under some slightly different circumstances (Foster came out of nowhere casting himself as a conservative rather than a moderate) and even Edwards did it by fraudulently staging himself as a “conservative” Democrat. The rule generally is that you don’t discount an underdog in a Louisiana governor’s race.
But there’s the math here, and we’re pretty skeptical.
Forget about the money situation. Landry’s war chest is right around $10 million; Waguespack is starting with nothing but has a pretty solid group of well-heeled donors from whom he can start reeling in cash. It’s a disadvantage but not a fatal one.
What we see, though, is a whole lot of difficulty in getting into a runoff from that middle lane.
Shawn Wilson is black, and that means he’s got 30 percent of the vote more or less locked up. He’s a Democrat, and that will get him at least another five percent from the smattering of left-wing white Democrat voters the state has. Let’s say that sweeps 35 percent of the vote off the table for Waguespack, and now he has to compete for the other 65 percent of the vote.
There is about five percent of the vote in the state which is white and registered Democrat but hasn’t voted Democrat in a long time. They function as independent voters, or maybe Republicans. Independents are about 25 percent of the electorate and most of them are what we’d call Moon Griffon independents – they aren’t registered Republicans but they’re best described as disaffected conservatives who complain about the GOP but still consistently vote Republican.
And then 35 percent of the voters are registered Republicans.
Landry polled a sample of the 60 percent of the state’s voters who are Republicans and independents a week or two ago, and he’s catching 48 percent of those people. There are 37 percent who are undecided, and the rest are sprinkled among the other candidates with Schroder doing the best among them at six percent.
Now – of that 37 percent, if the field is set you might say that Landry would still get some of them. Even if he doesn’t, he’s essentially sitting on half of the GOP and independent vote, and that puts him right around 30 percent.
If Wilson is at 35 and Landry is at 30, there’s only 35 percent of the vote for somebody else to get. And if Schroder, Hewitt, Nelson and Hunter Lundy are all still going to be in the race, how are you going to pass Landry on your way into the runoff?
Remember, Waguespack was Bobby Jindal’s executive counsel and chief of staff. All of the other Republicans, and probably Wilson as well, will spend the whole campaign calling him Bobby Junior. Wilson would much rather run against Landry in the runoff than Waguespack, if Waguespack is going to run in the center lane, so he’ll spend the whole campaign talking about how John Bel Edwards’ administration that he’s been part of has been attempting to undo all of the damage Jindal did to the state’s government and economy and so on. And Landry will take lots of shots at Waguespack as a Chamber of Commerce, country-club Republican who won’t take on the tough fights.
We’re not saying all of that is true or worthy criticism. It doesn’t matter. The point is you aren’t going to get 30 of that 35 available percent of the vote when you’re being shot at from both sides. You can get a majority of it, that’s possible, but it’s not enough.
And peeling voters off Landry is something Waguespack is going to find it very, very difficult to do. Jeff Landry’s base absolutely loves him. All of those “divisive” fights he’s gotten into over things like the porn books at the libraries and taking on Big Tech and so forth have built him a core constituency that’s more loyal than any politician in Louisiana has had since Edwin Edwards was around. Is that a majority share of the vote overall? No, not at this point.
But Landry’s calculus is that if he gets in a runoff with Shawn Wilson he wins overwhelmingly just like Mike Foster did in 1995 when he got into the runoff with Cleo Fields. And until there is actual evidence disproving that, it’s the only intelligent way to see the race.
Again, we like Stephen Waguespack, and we think he would do well as governor. We think he would avoid most of the mistakes Jindal made and so we don’t really think of him as a Jindal 2.0 candidate. We wouldn’t have a problem supporting him if the rumors are true and he got in.
But while there is that history of the underdogs winning governor’s races in this state, what we can’t do is show, sans some dramatic change in the political reality, how he gets into the runoff. And leaving that terrific job at LABI, which we’d assume he’d have to do, to run for governor is a little bit of a head-scratcher until we see more evidence.