As the qualifying date rapidly approaches, state Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain’s Baton Rouge campaign office is the picture of tranquility on a recent weekday afternoon.
The phones are silent. College-age volunteers are nowhere to be found. Most of Strain’s campaign signs are stacked in an Abita Springs warehouse rather than fading in the sun on supporters’ lawns.
The problem is not that Strain is lagging in the polls, but that no one appears to be running against him in the Oct. 22 primary.
“It looks like there’s no opposition, and it certainly won’t be me,” said Wayne Carter, who vied for the job in 2007.
State Rep. Noble Ellington, R-Winnsboro, said reports of him jumping into the race are greatly exaggerated.
Ellington announced during the recent legislative session that he would not seek another term in the Louisiana House.
Since then, he said, rumors are swirling that he plans to become state agriculture commissioner, the governor’s chief of staff or head of the Office of Group Benefits.
None of the rumors are true, Ellington said.
“I’m probably going to be on my porch at my house,” he said. “I’m not running for anything.”
Strain is not alone in running in a seemingly one-candidate race. The races for state insurance commissioner and even governor are generating little buzz less than three weeks before candidates officially put their names on the October ballot.
Shreveport demographer Elliott Stonecipher blames the struggling economy.
“I think we all might be surprised how many people are unopposed when qualifying closes,” he said.
Four years ago, the Republican Strain and two other candidates challenged Bob Odom, a Democrat who had held the job for 28 years.
Odom polled 41 percent of the vote to Strain’s 40 percent in the primary. Knocked out of the runoff were Carter and Transylvania farmer Don Johnson, each of whom received less than 200,000 votes.
On the campaign trail, Odom faced questions about a long-standing criminal case against him and about using state employees for construction projects.
Odom, who had not been in a runoff since he was elected in 1979, dropped his bid for an eighth term after the primary.
Strain estimates he spent more than $1 million on the race against Odom. The most recent campaign finance report for the upcoming election shows he spent roughly $24,000 between April and July of this year.
The race against Odom entailed a staff that included consultants, fundraisers and aides. This time around, Strain is making do with two paid campaign staffers.
The phone system just was installed at his Baton Rouge campaign headquarters. The headquarters is furnished more like a home than an office. Strain sleeps there when he does not want to make the drive back to his Covington home.
“I have been going to parades and doing all that stuff,” Strain said. “A lot of the signs are sitting out of the sun in a warehouse ready to go.”
The job of Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry officially calls for promoting, protecting and advancing “agriculture and forestry, and soil and water resources.”
The agency is tasked with monitoring plant disease, regulating the scales that weigh fruit at grocery stores, protecting food supplies and conserving the forests.
The job pays $115,000 a year.
Strain’s tenure as agriculture commissioner coincided with tough budget times for the state. He said he cut staff, the agency’s vehicle fleet and other expenses. He is trying to make a syrup mill that Odom built work.
He also is grappling with another Odom-era project that cratered and left the state possibly liable for $3 million.
For now, though, Strain is focused on the election and on the big party he plans to throw at the Louisiana State Museum in downtown Baton Rouge on the final day of qualifying.
An invitation for the event promises “family, food (and) fun.”
“We’re going to have a grand celebration. We’re going to have a party,” Strain said. “If no one runs against me, it’s going to be a grand celebration that the election is done.”