What made Doug Schmidt’s 1991 “Get the Fox out of the Henhouse” campaign commercial such a classic was the distinctive “lock and load” click as, presumably, Louisiana voters prepared their collective rifles.
Secretary of State Fox McKeithen, against whom the ad was aimed, probably wasn’t as amused. But he won re-election.
Candidates, winning and losing alike, generally decry the mean-spirited campaign commercials, mail-outs and literature, but use them all the same. Participants and observers in Louisiana’s most-recent primaries say the use of dirty campaign ads leading into the Oct. 22 vote was more prevalent than ever before.
“I never had that kind of coordinated, sophisticated campaign waged against me,” said state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, who won re-election against Republican Paul E. Miller, also from Ville Platte. LaFleur was portrayed in a mailer as a Chihuahua with an Elvis haircut.
LaFleur pointed to separate efforts by U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Gov. Bobby Jindal to elect more conservatives — efforts that raised millions of dollars for what traditionally had been low-cost, local campaigns for seats in the Louisiana Legislature and on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policy for public schools.
The Jindal/Vitter money — almost $2 million, according to the Louisiana Board of Ethics — was available to be added to other third-party funds, such as the million or so raised by self-described conservative Lane Grigsby, a Baton Rouge contractor.
LaFleur said the personal attacks against him — and presumably other incumbents — prompted equally ferocious responses.
“It was disappointing to me to be honest,” said first-time candidate Daryl Babcock, of Denham Springs. “They intentionally tried to mislead people.”
Advertising in this all-Republican race for the state Senate implied that Babcock had not graduated from high school, citing a social media site that had not been completed. Babcock says he graduated Slidell High School in 1991.
His opponent, incumbent state Sen. Dale Erdey, R-Livingston, had been targeted in mailers as a close ally of President Barack Obama — near-poison in a predominantly white and Republican parish where the president is unpopular. Erdey says he opposes Obama’s economic policies.
Bob Mann, the author of the recently published “Daisy Petals and Mushroom Clouds: LBJ, Barry Goldwater and the Ad that Changed Politics,” said this year’s so-called dirtiest-ever campaign was more likely linked to having so many candidates with so few policy differences. In that situation, candidates use personal attacks to differentiate themselves, said Mann, adding that he didn’t see this campaign as being any meaner than previous ones.
What differed was that many of the legislative and BESE candidates were new to politics and were not prepared for the ferocity of invective that accompanies political campaigns, said Mann, an LSU professor who worked as an aide for then-U.S. Sen. John Breaux and then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
Also, in the new reality, the Internet allows candidates to circumvent traditional media, like newspapers, to target their supporters, Mann said. The freedom of the Internet leads to more direct accusations, unfiltered by cost and propriety.
Timmy Teepell, the governor’s chief adviser who recently left the administration to join a political consulting firm, said no incumbent legislators lost in the primary, though a few face runoffs. Only one incumbent BESE member, however, was re-elected in the primary. Others face runoffs or were beaten outright.
Teepell was asked if legislators who work hard in their local communities to be well-known, have an advantage in a low-turnout election against a relatively unknown newcomer, whereas, many voters couldn’t identify their BESE member on a bet. He responded that voters may not know who their BESE member is, but they do know they are not happy with the quality of public education.
“You had a wave election in BESE that was anti-incumbent,” Teepell said. “People want change and they want it fast.”
That millions were spent on the legislative contests, as well as BESE races, with such disparate results, Teepell said, shows that pouring money into campaigns doesn’t ordain election results.
“What you’re seeing is that you can’t create a wave with money. But you can use money to capitalize on the wave,” Teepell said.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.