The first gubernatorial campaign I really remember was in 1979, and that was because I looked into the eyes of most of the nine candidates at St. Joseph Catholic Church’s festival in Chauvin.
Paul Hardy and Sonny Mouton chatted with people eating shrimp boulettes and alligator sauce piquant at picnic tables. Jimmy Fitzmorris staked out a corner near the Ferris wheel, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and told stories about the Old Choctaws, a nickname for the Regular Democratic Organization that ran New Orleans in the first half of the 20th century.
Dave Treen, the eventual winner, didn’t perspire, but he also didn’t look comfortable in his ironed polo shirt as he tried to dodge spills of the pinkish ice cream concoction that included Pop Rouge, a strawberry soda popular then.
Chauvin’s “Lagniappe on the Bayou” festival is long a party of history — and so is a campaign style that includes candidates for Louisiana governor hanging out at festivals, talking issues at forums and passing time at Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners.
“You are daydreaming about a Louisiana that no longer exists,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
That kind of retail campaign just isn’t efficient anymore. Even the hardest-working candidate could only shake 10 percent of the electorates’ hands, he said.
Facebook has replaced face-to-face. Twitter now doubles for conversation. Big data can parse and dice voters into specific special interests on which candidates can personalize their appeals in mailers and robo-calls.
The move away from one-on-one conversations with voters toward social media began in 2015 as gubernatorial candidates started skipping forums and favoring closed-door meetings with small special interest groups.
Still, almost any weekend during the 2015 campaign would see Scott Angelle dancing in Delcambre, David Vitter shaking hands at the Agnes Le Thi Thanh’s Vietnamese Fall Festival in Marrero, and John Bel Edwards going from table to table to speak directly to every one of some 250 seniors at an AARP Louisiana forum in Baton Rouge.
That isn’t happening in the 2019 campaign.
Six weeks from election day, Cross said, few voters know much about any of the major candidates: Edwards, the incumbent Democrat; Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto; and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, also a Republican.
Few forums have been held. The first time all three will be on the same stage seriously talking policy will be during the three television debates that begin later this month – a week before early voting in the Oct. 12 primary.
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No dreams for Louisiana have been shared. Little, if any, details of what they plan to do as governor have been articulated in public.
“It has been a policy-barren campaign,” Cross said. “It’s almost like they’re only running on ‘We’re not really happy’.”
Rispone’s spokesman, Anthony Ramirez, dismisses such criticism.
Rispone has put about 30,000 miles on his car talking to groups around the state. He recently met with Republican Party executives in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes. He plans to be in Morgan City on Friday — ahead of the traditional Sunday parade kicking off governor’s races but in time to walk through the Shrimp & Petroleum Festival.
“The political operative class might not be knowing what is going on in the campaign, I would express that their opinion is wrong,” Ramirez said.
Roy Fletcher, the Baton Rouge political strategist who was the architect of Republican Mike Foster’s successful 1995 bid for governor, said this year’s crop of candidates is doing what their situation requires.
Edwards is doing what incumbents do: cutting ribbons while announcing projects and programs.
Abraham is spending the most time doing retail politics. But he also needs more money if his candidacy is going to hold off a surge by Rispone, like the one documented in an independent poll last week. So, Abraham is turning most of his easy-going charm on rich Republicans rather than rank-and-file voters.
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Rispone, who loaned his campaign $10 million, grew up in a blue-collar north Baton Rouge home and built a multi-million-dollar business. Fletcher said he has a great personal story that only a handful of voters have heard because Rispone apparently isn’t comfortable in the fast-paced thrust and parry of candidate forums.
Instead, Rispone’s campaign is relying on spots aimed at President Donald Trump’s coattails. Similarly, Abraham also stresses links to Trump, who remains popular in Louisiana, but little on details about his policies.
“What we’re missing here is just who are these candidates,” Fletcher said. “We kind of know Edwards, mostly because of last time. He’s keeping a much lower profile this time. But these others are still kind of blank slates.”
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