As a new NFL season begins it is an interesting coincidence that Attorney General Jeff Landry is employing an established football strategy to win a spot in the gubernatorial runoff: Jump out to a big lead, sit on the ball, don’t take any risks, and run out the clock.
Given his big lead in the polls, his strategy is working, and the first televised debate of the primary season demonstrated that his opponents don’t know how to stop him.
The first televised debate in the 2023 governor’s race was held on Sept. 7 at the WWL-TV studio in New Orleans. The participants were: State Treasurer John Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, former Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack, trial lawyer Hunter Lundy, and former State Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson.
Landry did not participate. His reason for skipping the event was that the Urban League was listed as a debate sponsor and he believed the organization is a biased liberal group that only supports Democrats. However, his claim is curious, because WWL-TV News Director T. Nicole Waivers pointed out that the Urban League did not write any questions, none of their staff would ask any questions, and they had no role in designing the format of the debate.
There was no obvious way for the Urban League to introduce bias into the debate. Their role as sponsor consisted of using their communication platforms to publicize and promote the debate.
Some have speculated that Landry did not want to participate in a debate in New Orleans because it’s considered hostile territory for Republicans, but he will join the next debate because it is in Lafayette, a friendly Republican area next to his old congressional district. Landry can afford to be selective about which debates he attends because he doesn’t need the exposure. He doesn’t need to do anything. He can run out the clock.
Wilson has a clear path to a runoff spot as the only major Democrat in the race, so he can keep his powder dry for now. However, all of the other Republican candidates need to find a way to reduce the Landry vote share for their campaigns to survive.
In the first debate, the Republicans did not take any risks and missed many opportunities to differentiate themselves from Landry. They barely mentioned him at all. When they did, it was by his title, not his name.
For example, Hewitt, attempting to paint Landry as anti-oil and gas, said: “The attorney general is not a friend of the oil and gas industry.” The problem is that polling shows that most citizens cannot name their state attorney general. Casual voters might not even know who Hewitt was talking about.
Schroder muffed a similar opportunity by referring to Landry as “the attorney general” rather than using his name. These are surprising tactical errors made by experienced politicians.
Landry won the debate without showing up because none of the other candidates were able to mount any effective attacks on him. They all played it safe, took no risks, and tried to stay on their own messages. The only differences on the stage were the positions of Democrat Wilson on abortion and LGBTQ+ issues. But the other Republicans are not running against Wilson. They are running against Landry for one runoff spot. Their failure to land any blows in the debate means the race remains at status quo, and the status quo is a win for Landry.
To get back to the football analogy, for the other Republican candidates to have any chance of catching him, they will either need to start blitzing him on every play, throwing Hail Marys into the end zone, or both strategies at once. They will have their opportunity on Sept. 15, in that televised debate in Lafayette. Landry has confirmed that he will participate in that event. With primary election day taking place on Oct. 14, if the other Republicans don’t figure out a bold new strategy in the next few weeks, the clock will run out on them.
Robert Collins is a professor of urban studies and public policy at Dillard University, where he holds the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Professorship.