Quin Hillyer: Might Louisiana Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne make a run at U.S. Sen. David Vitter? Race for governor could surprise _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Louisiana Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne leads a town hall meeting on tourism and economic growth Wednesday at Vermilionville in Lafayette.

Unhatched political chickens? Don’t count them, of course. Especially in a Louisiana governor’s race, like the one about to kick into gear early in 2015.

In early spring of 1987, a Tulane law student and former intern in Bob Livingston’s congressional office named Bob Eitel produced a thoughtful memo for his friends in Livingston’s campaign for governor. Eitel warned that Democratic U.S. Rep. Buddy Roemer had a real chance to catch fire and beat Livingston and three other major gubernatorial candidates that year.

It’s safe to say every professional political pundit in Louisiana would have scoffed if they had seen the memo. Roemer was polling a very weak fifth place in the polls, without easy access to significant campaign cash and with a brash personality that left him without strong political alliances.

Roemer still was running fifth a half-year later, with just six weeks left in the campaign. But, with a closing rush, he zoomed from fifth to first and became governor in a cakewalk.

The tables reversed four years later. Even with undercover (under-sheeted?) neo-Nazi David Duke carrying momentum from a surprisingly strong U.S. Senate race the year before, conventional wisdom held that a sitting governor was a shoo-in at least to make a runoff, which he would surely win against a still-unpopular Edwin Edwards or, God forbid, against Duke if Duke actually qualified.

We all know the nightmarish, Roemer-less runoff that ensued.

In 1995, state Sen. Mike Foster was an afterthought in the early polls, until he rode a passel of cleverly placed pro-gun ads to the governorship. Going backward in time, in 1979, few would have predicted that little-known Public Service Commissioner Louis Lambert would emerge from a tough field to make the runoff and then come within 9,000 votes of beating Republican Dave Treen. And in 1971, Edwards was thought far less likely to become governor than were former Gov. Jimmie Davis, U.S. Rep. Gillis Long or state Sen. Bennett Johnston. And Public Service Commissioner John McKeithen was likewise at best the fourth most well-known candidate in 1963 before the public “he’ped him” serve two terms.

This long (and Long, as in Huey-Earl-Gillis) history of Louisiana gubernatorial surprises should teach pundits not to handicap next year’s race too definitively, too soon.

Conventional wisdom right now has U.S. Sen. David Vitter as the odds-on favorite to succeed Bobby Jindal as governor. Conventional wisdom is that U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s landslide re-election loss makes it virtually impossible for her brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, to win.

The same “wisdom” says Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne gets squeezed between Vitter and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who is expected to have Jindal’s backers behind him. But Angelle is thought to be no match for the well-known Vitter, whose clout seems clearly to outweigh Jindal’s right now.

Democrat State Rep. John Bel Edwards? Really? He’s so little known that many voters might think he’s Edwin trying for a fifth term — and that ain’t gonna fly with anyone. Or so the oddsmakers will have it.

And still floating around there as a possibility is state Treasurer John Kennedy, who already has lost attempts for higher office running well to the left and well to the right (depending on which race) of his other major competitors. Surely he can’t really be a player — can he?

Tell all of these judgments to sure also-rans McKeithen, Edwards, Lambert, Roemer, Edwards again, and Foster. Or, for that matter, to a guy named Jindal, who began the 2003 race as the lowest-polling Republican in the field.

The point, for political junkies on a letdown from a Senate race that failed to deliver much closing drama, is that there may be a new high coming sooner than they think. Louisianans may yet decide they like entertainment and plot twists in their politics, as in the days of old. So sit back and grab some popcorn; there’s a governor’s race to watch.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com, and he blogs at blogs.theadvocate.com/quin-essential.