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Party chair Katie Bernhardt speaks during a meeting of the state Democratic Party on Aug. 13, 2022, at the Louisiana State Capitol.

John Bel Edwards showed the Democrats’ path to the Governor’s Mansion in both 2015 and 2019 — have the party unite behind a single person, watch the Republicans tear each other up in the primary and then defeat the wounded GOP candidate in the runoff.

Whether Democrats can line up behind one candidate is now in question after party chair Katie Bernhardt gave all the appearances of being a contender in a super PAC-financed ad that began airing Monday.

In the 60-second spot, Bernhardt never says she is planning to run, but the ad includes the typical candidate touches, showing her talking about the need for a better future, shooting a shotgun and playing with her children.

She introduces herself twice in the ad and says she’s “someone ready to work hard for our children’s future.”

But Bernhardt’s apparent candidacy was roiling Democrats on Monday who have been lining up behind Shawn Wilson, the state transportation secretary.

“He should be given full consideration,” said Gary Chambers Jr., the top vote-getting Democrat in last year’s U.S. Senate election. “He’s a man of impeccable integrity and has run a state agency blamelessly.”

Wilson said he is more likely to run than not, saying he was in his “final leg of due diligence.”

Hillar Moore III, the Democratic district attorney of East Baton Rouge, said he’ll decide next week whether he is running.

Democratic leaders seem baffled that Bernhardt, who was supposed to find a strong candidate for the party, is now seriously considering being that candidate.

Edwards doesn’t believe she ought to run, said someone familiar with his thinking.

“I do not know what’s going on,” said Trey Ourso, a former state party executive director who played a key outside role in helping elect Edwards in 2015 and 2019 and would be expected to assist the Democratic candidate this year through his Gumbo PAC.

In a brief interview, Bernhardt said she “is not currently a candidate. I am committed to finding a good candidate to beat Jeff Landry and ensuring that we bring together party leadership, our governor and congressional leadership for a unified front.”

If Bernhardt does run, she also will have to contend with Democrats angry with decisions she has made during her three years as party chair.

Until now, Republican leaders have been wringing their hands over the prospect of a repeat of the 2015 and 2019 races, when a multi-candidate GOP field faced a single Democrat. So far, the Republican candidates include Attorney General Landry, Treasurer John Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and state Rep. Richard Nelson.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves is still weighing whether to jump into the race.

Louis Gurvich, the state Republican Party chair, devoted an entire missive last week to fears that Graves getting into the race would split the party so badly that a Democrat would triumph this year, in a state where Republicans hold all of the other statewide offices.

“This article is submitted in the hope that conservatives may avoid the mistakes of the two previous gubernatorial elections,” wrote Gurvich, who helped engineer a party endorsement of Landry that angered Schroder, Hewitt and other leading Republicans.

Bernhardt, a 36-year-old business owner in Lafayette, was elected the Democrats’ chair in 2020 with promises to revitalize the party after it had lost ground over the past decade in Louisiana.

Young, energetic and telegenic, she has traveled the state over her tenure to recruit candidates and raise money. But Republicans have also added to their advantage in the state Legislature during that time, and are now close to having a super-majority in both the House and the Senate. Republicans were elected mayor of Shreveport and Monroe, ending years of Democratic rule in both cities.

“The job of the Democratic Party chair is to build infrastructure, recruit candidates and raise money. I have not seen that happen in the last three years,” said Lynda Woolard, a party activist in New Orleans who lost the 2020 chair race to Bernhardt. “She doesn’t have the experience or the skill set to run the state.”

State Rep. Mandie Landry recently left the Democratic Party to become an independent in large part, she said Monday, because the state party favored then-state Rep. Royce Duplessis in their New Orleans state Senate race last year.

“There’s nothing to show that she’d be a strong, principled governor because she hasn’t been a strong, principled chair,” Landry said. “If she gets into a runoff, [Jeff] Landry would wipe the floor with her.”

Davante Lewis, who knocked off incumbent Lambert Boissiere III to join the Public Service Commission, also remains unhappy with Bernhardt because the state party spent money to elect Boissiere.

Bernhardt’s chief ally at this point is AP Marullo, a metro New Orleans restaurateur and real estate developer who said he is spending $150,000 to broadcast the ad with Bernhardt this week in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Shreveport and Lafayette. It’s under the banner of the Team Louisiana PAC.

“I think she’d be a fantastic governor,” he said.

Super PACs normally can’t coordinate their activities with a candidate. Marullo said that rule doesn’t apply since Bernhardt is not running at this time.

Marullo insisted that the ad’s intent was not to help her.

“It’s issue advocacy,” he said. “The issues are how do we attract leaders and the right leaders and what qualities should they possess so we can do good things in Louisiana.”

Marullo said he is raising money from others to finance Team Louisiana to produce more ads that may or may not include Bernhardt.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.

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