Washington — When Gov. Bobby Jindal announced that he would not formally declare his intentions for a 2016 presidential campaign until after the Legislature adjourns in June, he set up a scenario in which his performance in a challenging legislative session will set the stage for his White House run.
Given the daunting task of closing a projected $1.6 billion state budget gap and the widespread dissent about how to do that, there’s considerable risk for Jindal in that scenario. But in any event — as with any governor bidding to be president — his record of managing affairs in his home state will be very much in play in a national campaign.
Just how much weight that record carries is difficult to quantify, and a governor need not have worked miracles to mount a viable White House bid.
Kyle Kondik, of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, points out that in 1992, the incumbent governor of Arkansas — a state, like Louisiana today, not recognized as a national leader in rankings of wealth, education or other critical measures — won the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the presidential election.
The gubernatorial record of that politician, Bill Clinton, was not the determinative factor in his success, Kondik said. “What mattered more was that Clinton was a strong candidate who was a good fit for the Democratic electorate at that time,” he said.
Nonetheless, for governors running for president, the record they have compiled as a state’s chief executive must play a significant role in their campaign narratives.
“If they don’t have a good story to tell, then they probably don’t have a story to tell, period,” said Craig Shirley, a Republican political consultant and biographer of Ronald Reagan, another governor who went from the state house (of California) to the White House.
Jindal, 43, will have a potentially appealing tale to spin for Republican voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and the other key states in the nomination process, though a disastrous outcome of the current legislative session could mar his text.
He can say, as he has, that he has cut the state’s workforce by a third since taking office in 2008, reduced taxes and balanced the state budget. He can tell affecting stories, as he has, about reversing the out-migration of Louisianians so parents can see their children working in jobs in Louisiana, not in Texas or California.
He also can claim that he has improved the reputation of Louisiana as a place to do business, and he can cite recent surveys that reported as much.
What may well be lost in his telling are the fine points that roil the legislators, advocates and newspaper editorial writers in his home state: generous tax credits for filmmaking and other industries, use of nonrecurring revenue sources to plug holes in the budget, and major reductions in state support for public universities and health care.
“For a national audience and an audience of voters that don’t live in the state that you live in, those details just don’t matter,” Kondik said. “What may be very legitimate criticisms of a governor’s record are just too far in the weeds for a national election.”
That’s the good news, potentially, for Jindal. The bad news — for him or any other governor — is that his record back home can provide ammunition for his opponents, who will offer their own take on it.
“That’s the first place opposition researchers will go to derail a candidacy,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican operative who is performing polling for one of the announced candidates in the 2016 Republican race, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida. “Any steps that a governor took while in office in the state will be the subject of a debate in a presidential campaign.”
And any misstep “sets up the typical 30-second attack spot,” said Eddie Mahe, a longtime Republican political consultant who has worked on national campaigns.
“Anything and everything that could have an impact on the campaign will be tested and tried out and used,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster. “You can run around saying all the great things you’ve done, but your criticisms and your editorials and whatever else back home becomes part of the national dialogue.”
Other current or former governors in the potential Republican field face challenges tied to their home-state records, too. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, like Jindal, are struggling with budgetary and fiscal problems.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee may be tripped up by a different sort of problem related to their roles as governors: political apostasy, at least under conservative dogma. For Kasich, it’s expanding Medicaid in Ohio via the Affordable Care Act; for Huckabee, it was raising taxes in Arkansas — neither of which is a sin committed by Jindal.
But what may bedevil Jindal in particular are two other Louisiana-centric blows that have hit him especially hard.
In 2011, when he ran for his second four-year term as governor, Jindal swept to victory with 66 percent of the vote. But a statewide opinion survey conducted two months ago showed his approval rating had plunged to 27 percent. Christie and Walker have suffered fall-offs in their popularity, too, but nothing quite like the decline Jindal has experienced.
Beyond that, Jindal is confronted with a distinctive form of adversity on his home turf: attacks, sometimes severe, from other statewide elected officials in his own party.
His most high-profile Republican critic is the leading contender to succeed him as governor: U.S. Sen. David Vitter. Their feud — which seems both personal and political — goes back several years and has generated national publicity. Vitter was quoted this year in the New York Times as describing Jindal’s budgetary strategy as “this broken fiscal policy,” adding, “I don’t agree with his general approach.”
Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy a few months ago characterized Jindal’s state spending plan as a tricked-up confection of smoke and mirrors.
And Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, another Republican running to succeed Jindal, said at a forum, “Our budget has been full of sleights of hand — it’s almost a Ponzi scheme.”
None of this can be helpful to Jindal as a national candidate.
“If you’re pretty unpopular in your home state, it’s generally not a good thing,” said Charlie Cook, a Shreveport native who produces the national Cook Political Report in Washington. “It suggests that greater familiarity does not create respect and fondness.”
And Mahe said, “That’s a heavy burden to carry, when you can’t even point to the support of your current constituency.”
The intraparty bickering is custom-made for mailers and attack ads, Kondik noted: “ ‘Here’s what the Republicans who know Bobby Jindal best say. ...’ ”
Jindal’s damaged reputation with his fellow Republicans and the public also could hurt him with potential donors and party activists in other states, who are likely to call their Louisiana counterparts for an up-close report on the candidate, said Craig Varoga, a Democratic political strategist in Washington and former New Orleans resident who was campaign manager for the short-lived 2007 White House bid by former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
And what makes any liabilities more worrisome for Jindal is his acute failure to gain ground in the Republican presidential competition so far: He consistently registers in the low single digits in opinion polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, trailing as many as 10 other announced or potential candidates included in the surveys.
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