Monday, April 22, 2024

Collins: Dark money, infighting could change Louisiana governor’s race

by BIZ Magazine

Qualifying for the Louisiana governor’s election closed Aug. 10 without any last-minute surprise candidates entering the race. The major Republican candidates in the running include state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the only prominent woman candidate, state Attorney General Jeff Landry, state Rep. Richard Nelson, State Treasurer John Schroeder, and former president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Stephen Waguespack.

There is one major independent in the race, wealthy trial lawyer Hunter Lundy. The only major Democrat in the race is former state Secretary of Transportation and Development Shawn Wilson, who is also the only major Black candidate in the race.

Because Landry has been raising money for more than a year, he is running first in most polls. He is also the leader of the pack in fundraising with more than $ 9 million on hand during the last reporting period. Every other candidate has less than $3 million. Landry has the endorsement of Donald Trump. Wilson runs second in most polling, which is expected because he is the only major Democrat. Wilson has the endorsement of Gov. John Bel Edwards and every other major Democratic elected official in the state.

Conventional wisdom is the race will stay true to form, with Landry and Wilson guaranteed spots in the runoff. The expectation is that Landry would then win that runoff, due to demographics that make Louisiana hostile to Democrats in statewide elections.

However, there are two X factors that could still cause surprises in the race. The first is whether Landry can make it through a bruising primary election unscathed. Because the other Republicans know that the only way to secure the runoff spot is through Jeff Landry, they will ignore Wilson and focus all of their concentrated fire on Landry. Although Landry is an experienced politician, he has never had to withstand a focused attack before.

The second X factor affecting both sides is the involvement of super PACs and dark money groups who, although they cannot legally coordinate with individual candidates, can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on advocacy. These groups had success in influencing the outcomes of recent Louisiana elections.

This governor’s race is expected to bring a record amount of dark money into the state. These groups are always either issue or industry-specific, and one group might decide to advocate for a specific candidate. So, for example, if the cannabis industry decided to back Nelson, who has introduced legislation to make cannabis legal for all adult residents regardless of use, he might catch fire and make things interesting.

Over on the Democratic side, Wilson does not have the same challenges making the runoff. His problem will come after the primary. While the current governor is a Democrat, he entered his races with a unique set of factors that Wilson does not have.

John Bel Edwards is considered a socially conservative Democrat and is opposed to abortion rights. Wilson favors abortion rights. Edwards comes from a family with four generations of sheriffs in its background, and he is the brother of a sheriff. These connections allowed him to get the endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association. Wilson lacks the same political connections.

Based on Edwards’ last election, the formula for a Democrat to win statewide is to win 95% of the Black vote, 35% of the white vote, and Black and white voter turnout needs to be roughly equal. In his last election in 2019, Edwards received 95% of the Black vote, 33.5% of the white vote, and squeaked past challenger Eddie Rispone with 51% of the total vote.

If Wilson runs a perfect campaign focused on creating jobs and avoids the culture war issues that typically hurt Democrats in Southern states, he will still need some external help to get more than  30% of the white vote. Another X factor for Wilson is the long-shot possibility that the Republican nominee might come out of the Oct. 14 primary so damaged by internal Republican infighting that some GOP voters choose to skip the Nov. 18 general election.

Regardless of structural factors in the race, nothing is carved in stone, as seen in the 2020 congressional cycle when Georgia, a reliable Republican state, elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate. Anything can happen, and every voter needs to show up on election day.

(This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.)

Robert Collins is a professor of urban studies and public policy at Dillard University, where he holds the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Professorship.

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