Louisiana Voters Prepare for Very Different Election

Posted October 22, 2003 at 2:24pm

While this year’s gubernatorial contests in Kentucky and Mississippi are being fought more or less along traditional lines, the Nov. 15 runoff in Louisiana is certain to shatter stereotypes about the state. [IMGCAP(1)]

The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, wants to replace outgoing Gov. Mike Foster, a Democrat turned Republican good ol’ boy who, some believe, would rather spend time hunting than governing. She would be the first woman elected to the state’s highest office.

While Democratic statewide candidates often portray themselves as conservatives, Blanco, who will turn 61 in December, really is one. On issues such as abortion and guns, the lieutenant governor is light years away from her national party.

Blanco has spent the past 20 years in elective office. After serving two terms in the state House of Representatives, she was elected to the Public Service Commission. She served on it for six years and was elected lieutenant governor in 1995.

If Blanco, the mother of six and grandmother of five, is a bit of an anomaly for a Democrat, her Republican opponent, Bobby Jindal, simply doesn’t look like many Louisiana GOPers.

Jindal, whose parents came to the United States from India, graduated from Brown University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. While he was still in his 20s, Foster selected him to run the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals. More recently, he served in the Bush administration as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Health and Human Services Department.

Jindal, 32, is one of the most articulate, thoughtful candidates I’ve met in two decades. A walking encyclopedia on health care issues, he talks about the subject with stunning clarity. He also has a keen understanding of the politics of the issue.

The GOP hopeful finished first in the Oct. 4 balloting, drawing about one-third of the vote to Blanco’s 18 percent. Two Democrats who competed strongly for the African-American vote, Attorney General Richard Ieyoub and former Congressman Claude “Buddy” Leach, finished third and fourth. Together, the top three Democrats drew 48 percent.

While Blanco and Jindal have relatively few differences on major issues, that hasn’t stopped them from taking aim at each other.

Blanco portrays her opponent as unprepared for the state’s top office and, increasingly, as a “puppet” being controlled by Foster, himself no stranger to controversy. She also blames Jindal for the state’s health care problems.

Jindal, on the other hand, presents himself as a political reformer who understands critical issues. He promises to shake up Baton Rouge and bring new ideas and energy to state government, a clear shot at the lieutenant governor, who said that she’d form a commission to look into health care issues since she isn’t an expert on them.

And Jindal began a new attack this week in TV ads, charging that Blanco has “gone negative” and portraying her as just another politician.

Louisiana’s African-American and Acadian voters are still reliably Democratic, so the state has been slow to accept Republican candidates. It is the only state in the South not to elect a Republican Senator since Reconstruction.

Partisans on both sides of the aisle and independent observers agree that the election will be close and will depend on turnout.

Blanco’s conservatism has turned off many liberals, and she has never been a favorite of the black community. In the Oct. 4 balloting, African-Americans went overwhelmingly for Ieyoub and Leach, both of whom spent heavily “on the street” to turn out those voters.

But black turnout wasn’t all that strong in October. Independent observers put it at about 40 percent in that contest, well below the 55 percent turnout of whites and the 49.5 percent overall turnout. Still, if black voters turn out for the runoff at the same rate that they did in October, it could be enough to give Blanco a narrow win.

The question mark for Jindal is white conservatives in northern Louisiana. State Sen. Randy Ewing, a pro-business, conservative Democrat, fared very well in the northeast quarter of the state in October, and unlike other Democrats in that race, he hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the runoff.

Jindal is making a strong effort to win Ewing voters, but he also needs to get a good turnout in that part of the state to win.

One problem facing both Blanco and Jindal is that few contests will be on the ballot next month. Local elections (including a number of hard-fought sheriffs races) helped bring voters to the polls in October. Without those contests, and given the few issue differences between the candidates, turnout for the runoff could fall.

Blanco needs every black voter she can get. She has already accused Republicans of not wanting African-Americans to vote, and she must make black voters feel the need to turn out. She is counting on black leaders to help her on Election Day, and Republican insiders expect her to have plenty of “street money,” a well-established Louisiana political tool, to get Democratic voters to the polls.

But, at least to this point, Jindal is not seen by African-Americans as an enemy.

“Jindal is neither loathed or feared [in the black community], at least not yet anyway,” said one Democrat familiar with the politics of the state’s African-American community. “Does Blanco have a lot of work to do? Yes. And she has to do it in a short period of time. But if she works it right.”

“It’ll be close,” says John Maginnis, publisher of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly, “and it will hinge on whether Kathleen Blanco can rally the core Democratic voters.” For now, that’s still an open question.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.