Saturday, July 20, 2024

Questions abound as the Louisiana governor’s race heads into the homestretch

by BIZ Magazine

Labor Day is traditionally the point where statewide election campaigns move into high gear with roughly six weeks to convince voters before they make their decision. For the 2023 Louisiana governor’s race, voters might also need a road map to follow the candidates who’ve either been nebulous about their platforms or aren’t making a big enough splash to register with the electorate.

Even apparent frontrunner Attorney General Jeff Landry, who’s firmly aligned himself with former President Trump and his far-right followers, is a man of mystery to many. He will bypass all but one televised debate, a key opportunity to get his message to the public. The one event he’s committed to so far will take place in a friendly setting he could attempt to pack with his own supporters.

Landry has said he intends to call a special session once in office on the topic of crime. He hasn’t shared any specifics on what he has in mind, other than vilifying authorities in the state’s largest cities for a “catch and release” approach to criminal justice. His plans for education are equally uncertain, other than his frequent conservative appeal to parental rights and rejection of the “woke mob.”

It’s hard to say whether this lack of detail from Landry’s stances will affect his appeal with moderate voters who have been key in recent governor’s races. Sure, Louisiana has grown more conservative as of late, but it’s in question whether its citizenry has moved as far to the right as other Southern states. 

Stephen Waguespack and Treasurer John Schroder are positioning themselves as the anti-Landry candidate, although both are strongly conservative in their own right.

Waguespack’s recurring campaign message attempts to frame him as the outsider in the race, but many view him as the quintessential insider given his business lobby background and position in the Jindal administration. He has laid out policy plans if he becomes governor, but he still has to win over voters who may not be convinced he’s the most qualified for the job.

Schroder has been by far the most aggressive in taking on Landry. The two have a history of clashes going back to their time together on the State Bond Commission, which the treasurer chairs and whose procedural financial decisions Landry has attempted to politicize. 

Yet in some ways, Schroder is farther right than anyone in the field. He’s selectively played this card on the campaign trail, but it’s not clear yet whether or how he would manifest these views if elected governor. 

Hunter Lundy has attempted to position himself as the Christian conservative alternative in the field. Thanks to his ample self-funded campaign, he’s conveyed that message fairly well based on his showing recent polls. Chances are low he can find enough far-right leaning fellow independents to make a serious bid, but he could possibly take enough votes away from Republicans in the race to make the primary more interesting.

Perhaps no candidate has provided more comprehensive platform planks than Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville. But with little campaign funding to speak of, he’s been limited in getting the word out with traditional ad buys, and as of now he’ll be left out of the first statewide TV debate. 

Some might even consider Nelson the progressive in the race, given his move to legalize recreational marijuana in Louisiana. Televised debates could expose him to a new audience and perhaps energize his fellow millennials who might not even know one of their own is on the ballot. Can he occupy the fruitful middle ground when he remains unfamiliar to so many voters? 

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, has pointed to her legislative track record on the campaign trail and has frequently placed education as her priority. Like Nelson and other lesser-known candidates in the field, recognition among voters is her biggest obstacle.

Democrat Shawn Wilson could well fall into this same category, even as a favorite to make the runoff as the endorsed candidate of his party. People know him primarily for his role as former secretary of the state transportation department, but that’s not necessarily the positive association Wilson wants it to be.

 It’s questionable whether he can follow the path of his old boss, Gov. John Bel Edwards, and appeal to enough moderate voters to give Landry, should he make the runoff, a serious run. Edwards made his anti-abortion stance clear from the start, and Wilson, though personally “pro-life,” espouses the political views of the abortion rights crowd.

What Edwards also had going for him in the 2015 election was running against a hugely unpopular candidate in David Vitter, who didn’t even carry his home Jefferson Parish in the runoff. Edwards also had the support of trial lawyers and his West Point pedigree 

For every effort to paint Landry in a negative shade comparable to Vitter, the state Republican Party and political action committees have responded with huge ad buys to boost the attorney general’s profile. 

Whether any other candidate can take the momentum away from Landry — or he somehow does so himself — is increasingly in doubt as Election Day nears.

Greg LaRose is editor of the Louisiana Illuminator and has covered news for more than 30 years in Louisiana.

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