On the “Talk Louisiana” radio show last week, Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser was unapologetic about his willingness to work with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“I take a lot of heat for being, as they say, 'too friendly with the governor,' but I feel we all got to work together. And I think sometimes the political maneuvering gets in the way of what’s best for the state,” Nungesser said.
Though the son of a key architect in electing the first GOP governor since Reconstruction and the party’s surge to the majority, Nungesser has been tagged with the pejorative RINO — Republican In Name Only — by the mutaween among Republican bloggers, columnists and radio talk show hosts.
Nungesser said his first duty is to do a good job, and his willingness to work with a Democrat resulted in a $17 million appropriation for a state park system that a couple months ago was bracing for layoffs and closures.
The RINO tag is often the excuse an opponent uses to challenge the incumbent’s right-wing sincerity, said Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge political pollster.
What makes the label decisive is whether the right-wing challenger has the money, organization and charisma to wage a serious contest.
For legislators, the impact of a RINO label is dependent on the makeup of their individual districts.
For the most part, GOP pragmatists come from districts that supported President Donald Trump, but not by much, Pinsonat said. Statewide is a different story as the rural and suburban voters who embrace red conservative populism outnumber, both in terms of total numbers and a willingness to go to the polls, the blue Democratic havens in Louisiana cities.
“Trump carried 80 percent of the white vote here. In my lifetime Louisiana has gone from yellow dog to blue dog to fire engine red,” Pinsonat said.
These considerations carry more urgency as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South approaches the Oct. 12, 2019 election with no declared opponents. But Edwards has lots of opposition.
On conservative radio talk show host Moon Griffon’s show, Attorney General Jeff Landry last week called for Republicans flirting with next year’s gubernatorial election to get on the floor and dance. He wants the party faithful and funders to get behind a single candidate.
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Landry also chairs Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority that is raising money to target RINO senators and representatives in that same election. He wants party faithful to rally around conservative orthodoxy, rather than a big tent.
But Louisiana’s Republican majority — like the Democrats before them — have splintered into various factions.
In the House, the 20 or so members of the Gang of No refuse to consider any taxes. About a dozen Republicans are more moderate.
Into the mix are about eight reps, sometimes 10, who are in their first term. As a block, they can throw enough votes to decide winners and losers on close-run issues.
They come from districts that are Trump pink. Rather than the fire-engine red that signifies near total support, the conservative districts have enough hospitals or colleges or law enforcement agencies that the lawmakers must remain flexible, said state Rep. Jack McFarland, a Jonesboro Republican who is member of the freshman block.
“We’re close-knit, trying to put policy forward,” said freshman Baton Rouge Republican state Rep. Paula Davis, who was the lead sponsor of the compromise legislation that ended the nearly annual shortfall in state revenues.
She was praised on the Senate floor by Republican Baton Rouge state Sen. Dan Claitor for not considering “compromise a cuss word.”
But the word is profanity to some, says three-term state Rep. Kenny Havard, of St. Francisville and one of the more vocal GOP pragmatists.
Havard recalls with a laugh answering the door of his West Feliciana Parish home during the last session. A volunteer from an organization funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers of Kansas was going door-to-door telling residents that tax-and-spend liberal Havard needed to be voted out of office.
Havard introduced himself to the somewhat startled door-knocker. He told the volunteer that he was more interested in getting a balanced budget passed without deeply harming state services that legislators had showed little willingness to cut.
“They want a Republican governor and don’t want John Bel to have any wins,” Havard said.
Though he still ranks being elected a representative as one of the highlights of his life, Havard said he has grown frustrated by partisan win-at-all-costs.
“This is supposed to be the art of compromise. You don’t get everything you want, they don’t get everything they want, but you move toward helping people,” said Havard, who is running for election in November as parish president — as a Republican.