State Capitol Baton Rouge politics

Advocate file photo -- The Louisiana State Capitol.

From the speaker of the House to the mayor of Turkey Creek, literally dozens of politicos are floating their names as the next Secretary of State.

True, a handful of legislators have let it be known that they had been “hearing from friends” since Secretary of State Tom Schedler announced in February he wouldn’t seek a third term in 2019. Then, Schedler abruptly announced last week that he would resign Tuesday because of intensifying scrutiny of claims he had sexually harassed an employee. Suddenly, a Nov. 6 election is necessary.

The list of candidates “looking at” the race ballooned to about 15 Republican lawmakers, five Democrats and one small-town mayor — and that’s only the ones who have made their interest known to political operatives.

Though second in the line of gubernatorial succession and holder of the official state seal, the secretary of state is one of the six offices elected statewide by voters who have a hard time recalling the name of its holder after Election Day. But for politicos, the position is a springboard for higher office. And this special election is a freebie in that the rest of the posts will be on the ballot next year.

They can run, build a little name recognition, and make some contacts outside their immediate base, all without endangering their current post.

“The idea is that win or lose, this will put them closer to the front of the pack,” said G. Pearson Cross, who teaches political science at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

The focus has been on the State Capitol because that’s the largest gathering spot of politicians. But the state lawmakers, whose abilities are well known inside the building, are not household names in the world beyond the Capitol’s parking lots. And because this is likely to be a low-dollar race, local politicians also have a reasonable shot. A mayor or parish president, who has their hands on contracts, should be able raise the half-million dollars necessary to make a credible run. Often, they're better known among local voters.

All these factors translate into “what was going to be a medium-sized crowded field into a supersized crowded field,” said Jason Redmond of New Orleans, who handled John N. Kennedy’s treasurer campaigns and other statewide down-ballot races. He thought a dozen, maybe two, would officially put their names on the ballot during the July 18-20 qualification period.

Political strategists suggest the possibility of the lowest turnout ever, which would be ironic when choosing the state’s elections chief.

Luckily, the strategists have a recent blueprint. They’ll be able to buy, from the secretary of state’s office, a list of people who went to the polls last fall and voted in the treasurer’s race — another low-interest contest for a statewide officeholder. That allows campaigns to target their emails, Facebook posts and direct mail on the issues concerning only a fraction of the electorate, leaving expensive television and radio buys until the last couple of weeks.

The goal for Republicans is to get into a runoff where, despite Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ win in 2015, voters still skew red, at least outside urban centers. So, the key is mobilizing enough of a GOP candidate’s base voters to make the runoff.

“The candidates who make it into the runoff will be the ones most in tune with the chronic voters in their area and the voters who turn out are, for the most part, conservative,” said veteran strategist Roy Fletcher, of Baton Rouge. Though nominally statewide, the most intense contests will be between candidates of specific regions, like New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Acadiana. 

Most political professionals say Louisiana will largely miss what many expect to be a blue surge nationally in the congressional midterms. The congressional contests here, which share the ballot with the secretary of state’s race, should be noncompetitive.

Still, Democratic Party leader Stephen Handwerk says interest in what’s happening nationally, coupled with strong local candidates, could mean an uptick in Democratic voters in both congressional and secretary of state races.

The issues in the secretary of state’s race will be about who is allowed on voter rolls, along with a possible debate about an expensive upgrade in equipment for the agency. But Schedler’s situation also will play a role, Handwerk said.

GOP legislators were remarkably quiet about Schedler until the most salacious of his on-the-job communications with a subordinate were published. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, of Slidell, was the first Republican officeholder to call on Schedler to resign after he admitted to having an extramarital affair with an employee but denied the sexual harassment allegations.

“I understand that these candidates weren’t involved, but they need to answer for their silence,” Handwerk said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.