Polls indicate that roughly a quarter of the state’s registered voters are heading into Saturday’s election not only undecided but unsure who the candidates for state treasurer are.
None of the six candidates have raised enough money to introduce themselves to the broader electorate – not because of state ethics laws, but because of recent federal regulations aimed at keeping Wall Street in line. The rules forbid investment advisers and bankers who do business with the State Bond Commission, which the treasurer chairs, from contributing significantly to a candidate involved in contracting money management work.
Usually, it’s the special interests who provide the nest eggs for television advertising early in a race that allows candidates to build name recognition and momentum. But that money is unavailable and none of the candidates have broken out of the pack.
The result is candidates shepherded their limited funds and waited until this last week before running a full slate of television ads.
As few as 13 percent and as many 18 percent of the state’s 2.9 million registered voters are expected to participate in an election to fill the remaining two years of John N. Kennedy’s term. He resigned in January to join the U.S. Senate.
Voter turnout is expected to be extraordinarily low this weekend, which is just one reason …
Kennedy ended his last campaign for treasurer in 2015 with $2.8 million in the bank. All six candidates, together, have raised a total of about $1.5 million.
Really, it’s the three main Republicans who have raised all but a few thousand of that amount: former Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, of Baton Rouge; state Sen. Neil Riser, of Columbia; and former state Rep. John Schroder, of Covington.
“When you can’t get enough money generated, you can’t get enough air time. And if you can’t get enough air time, you can’t generate public excitement,” said state Rep. Julie Stokes, the Kenner Republican who dropped out of the race in July for health reasons.
Even though she was supported by the state’s business community, Stokes said raising campaign dollars for state treasurer was difficult.
In addition to the restrictions on giving by investment advisers and bankers, Stokes found a lot of donor fatigue. The usual sources of funding for elections had been hit up constantly to elect a U.S. Senator in 2013 and in 2016 as well as a governor and six other officials elected statewide in 2015.
As a consequence, none of the candidates have been able to nudge ahead, causing a conundrum for bond attorneys and lobbyists, two professions who deal with the treasurer and can contribute a maximum of $5,000 per election, she said.
“From their point of view,” Stokes said, “you have three people who are fairly tied. So, you can’t just give $5,000, you have to give $15,000.”
Bond attorneys and lobbyists sat on their checkbooks for fear of alienating the candidate who does make it into the runoff.
“I’ve done elections for years and that’s what happens. And that’s what happened here,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge pollster.
Pinsonat said a candidate needs a minimum of $700,000 to run enough television commercials, starting in June or July, to build minimal name recognition across the state.
“They spend more money in the last two days of a governor’s race than (the treasurer’s candidates) have spent in this entire of election,” Pinsonat said.
Scott Angelle, whose father was a major player in state politics, had been lieutenant governor, St. Martin Parish president and a cabinet secretary under two governors before being elected to the Public Service Commission. Yet at the beginning of his run for governor his name recognition numbers lingered in the single digits.
In a bold gamble, Angelle spent upwards of $2 million to run television ads to get his name out among voters five months before qualifying in 2015. If the gambit didn’t work, Angelle would have spent nearly all his money. The plan did work and he was able to replenish his campaign war chest with new donations. He came in third, just behind David Vitter, in the gubernatorial primary.
All six candidates for state treasurer, together, didn’t hit the $1.5 million mark until the end of last week. And the pool of potential donors – the bankers and investment advisers who have a special interest in who wins the election – are unable to contribute more than $250 for the campaign.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission reacted in 2010 by tightening the federal “pay to play” Rule 206 (4)-5 after a series of highly publicized scandals involving the awarding of contracts to manage public funds.
“Rule 206(4)-5 is a prophylactic measure that seeks to prevent pay to play arrangements, in which investment advisers make campaign contributions to public officials in return for being selected for lucrative government contracts for the management of public funds,” wrote Ivet A. Bell, in a scholarly article published by the Columbia University Journal of Law and Social Problems in 2016.
The rule limits contributions to someone who is a “covered official.” That definition depends on the “scope of authority of the particular office of an official, not the influence actually exercised by the individual” over investment adviser selection.
Picking investment advisers to manage the loans and banks to underwrite them are pretty much what the Louisiana Bond Commission does.
It has all sounded like a bad joke.
LSU Professor Martin Johnson showed his political communications class the commercials being run by the treasurer candidates. They liked Riser’s ads best for simplicity of message and the rich production values. But all the commercials successfully got across the idea that each candidate was fiscally prudent.
“The real question is can they get them on television enough to make an impact,” Johnson said. The general rule is that a voter needs to see the commercial about six times, in each market. Even the better funded candidates are stretching to meet that goal.
Davis and Schroder have bought heavily in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, according to reports filed by the television stations with the Federal Communications Commission.
Davis spent $14,060 to run 25 commercials on WAFB-TV in Baton Rouge, including two spots during the 10 p.m. news each night. She’s running 21 commercials on KATC-TV in Lafayette, again mostly during newscasts.
Schroder bought time to run 29 commercials on WAFB during the first week of October and another 24 spots this week. He also spent money with WBRZ-TV and WVLA-TV, both in Baton Rouge. He’s running commercials on three stations in Lafayette.
Riser, who has far less money available, spent $1,565 to run his commercial during the Oct. 1 "60 Minutes" interview with U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise – the Jefferson Republican's first interview since he was injured in a June shooting.