Though the four major candidates for governor have spoken at forum after forum, the public is paying little attention to the race. But that’s all about to change.
“I go to a lot of meetings. They are not talking about the governor’s race at all,” Louisiana Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said.
Billy Nungesser, who has been traveling the state as a candidate for lieutenant governor, recalls a Lafayette visit last week in which a woman promised her vote to him because she wanted to unseat Gov. Bobby Jindal, apparently not realizing that term limits require the two-term governor to step down in January and that he has now set his sights on the presidency.
“People don’t even know who is running for governor,” Nungesser said.
An LSU survey released two weeks ago found that only about a third of the state’s adults are paying enough attention to the governor’s race to form an opinion.
Part of the reason is that the four major candidates have done little television advertising.
The primary is only nine weeks away, on Oct. 24, and traditionally by this time candidates for Louisiana’s highest office already would have started bus tours, appeared at festivals held political rallies, as well as run a few “getting to know you” ads on television and radio.
This year is different for a variety of reasons, say political professionals. Partially because of the money discrepancies — Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Metairie, has a larger war chest than the other three major candidates combined — and partially because of voter fatigue, the race hasn’t yet begun in earnest.
But that’s about to change as the candidates seek to unload millions of campaign dollars in a breakneck sprint to see which two make the runoff on Nov. 21.
“It’s going to be a race that gets really frenetic in the last month, a sprint to the finish,” said political scientist G. Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette associate dean, radio talk show host and magazine columnist.
“We’re all going to be sick of governor advertisements,” Cross said.
Cross said the differences between campaign war chests accounts for some of the delay in spending. The strategy is to hold the funds until the last weeks, so that Vitter doesn’t dominate the air waves.
Vitter, R-Metairie, began August with $5.04 million available to spend (not to mention The Fund for Louisiana’s Future, a Vitter-aligned super PAC, which reported $4.3 million cash on-hand.) Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, of Baton Rouge, reported $1.8 million. Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards, of Amite, had $1.07 million and Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, of Breaux Bridge, had $1.04 million. The next disclosures are due Sept. 24, about two weeks after the candidates officially sign up for the race at qualifying from Sept. 8 to Sept. 10.
“If Scott Angelle or Jay Dardenne or John Bel (Edwards) had the money, they would have been up early and often. Vitter, who did have the money, didn’t see that he had to and saw it was to his advantage to wait,” Cross said.
But the candidates still have millions of dollars and spots are relatively cheap in Louisiana – it costs only about $1,000 to run a commercial on Baton Rouge’s WAFB-TV 10 o’clock news, which is the highest rated newscast in the nation’s top 100 markets. It’s a perfect storm that could make for some television viewing advertising tedium for about a month and half.
Only two candidates, so far, have bought TV advertising, according to Federal Communications Commission records.
Angelle spent about $250,000 for commercials running statewide through the end of August.
Vitter spent about $100,000, also through the end of the month, to run a 30-second campaign ad, the FCC says. But the federal disclosures are agonizingly slow and may not reflect Vitter’s complete buy.
Though the campaign refuses to discuss details, Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar said last week the senator made a “significant” buy for time on television stations across the state to run his campaign commercial.
Edwards will start around Labor Day. Dardenne won’t say.
Robert E. Hogan, who teaches state politics at LSU, attributes the slow start to several factors.
“There’s a bit of election fatigue in the state, given that we just had this very extreme and very expensive U.S. Senate campaign this past fall,” he said. Additionally, the state has become very Republican, so it’s hard to excite Democrats who have seen their party do so poorly in recent elections.
The delay plays into Vitter’s wheelhouse, since he is the best known of the candidates.
The senior senator is energizing his base with statements that ignite conservative Republicans, such as the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans.
But he’s also leaning on a competence argument, which counters his lack of warmth and charm.
“Vitter comes across very Obama-like, cool and aloof and cerebral,” Hogan said.
Conventional wisdom is that a Republican and Democrat will end up in the runoff, mainly because recent Democratic candidates in statewide elections have been able to poll about 30 percent of the vote, while numerous GOP contenders fracture the primary election turnout. But in the general election, when Republicans don’t have to choose between several candidates, the GOP wins.
Edwards, a former U.S. Army Ranger with anti-abortion and pro-gun positions, hopes to change that calculus. Though well-known in government circles, Edwards is not a household name outside the State Capitol.
And that’s what Edwards’ media consultant, Jared Arsement, of Lafayette, says is the aim for the candidate’s first major foray into political advertising.
“We plan to use television aggressively to educate the public on his record of military service as well as leadership in the Legislature and his Louisiana values,” he said.
Dardenne, who has run and won three statewide campaigns during the past five years, is holding off until voters are paying more attention, said Marsanne Golsby, the campaign’s spokeswoman.
“Like every competitive race for governor, this race will be won in October,” she said.
ULL Professor Cross, who has interviewed all four candidates, said Dardenne told him he already has good name recognition and that he plans to hit the advertising hard later in the campaign.
Angelle has a different strategy.
Although well known in government circles — he was secretary of the Department of Natural Resources under two governors, a former president of St. Martin Parish and now a utility regulator — Angelle polled about 2 percent name recognition in January, said Roy Fletcher, his media consultant.
The Angelle campaign spent about $350,000 to run commercials statewide in June, and recent polls show he has attracted more attention and support. Current polls suggest that Angelle is closing in Vitter and he was endorsed (along with the senior senator) by the Republican Party of East Baton Rouge Parish, the largest local unit in the state and filled with politically active conservatives.)
“If we sat on our money, then we’d be here today a 2 percent with $2.5 million in the bank,” Fletcher said. “The gamble is now: can we raise the $3 million it’ll take for the next two months?”
Voters make their decisions based on talking with friends and neighbors at Sunday school or barbecues or at grocery stores, Fletcher said.
“They develop impressions, and what happens is that people start talking about it and listening. People take their leads from the people they talk to,” Fletcher said. “The goal of television advertising in a campaign is to form that conversation by giving people a positive impression.
“What I want to have happen is when they finally have that conversation across the fence or wherever, I want them to say, ‘Oh yeah, that guy.’ I want them to say, ‘Hey, I like that boy.’ ”
But those conversations haven’t started yet.
“The television campaign kind of forces it on people. It kick starts the conversation,” Fletcher said.
Marsha Shuler of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/