For a while there, Bobby Jindal sat at the top of Louisiana's Republican hierarchy.
He emerged from his 2003 near-miss for governor so popular that he was able to claim a congressional seat in an area where he'd never lived, even though he was clearly just waiting for his next opportunity to move into the mansion. When he got it, the outcome was so certain that the campaign was little more than a formality. It didn't hurt that Jindal's 2007 ascent coincided with a spectacular low point for the state's other top Republican, then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, whose phone number was discovered that year in the records of a Washington, D.C., prostitution ring.
The situation didn't last, though. Jindal eventually tripped over his presidential ambitions, and Vitter willed his way back, won reelection in 2010, and reasserted himself as the state GOP's top power broker. He helped engineer the party's longstanding goal of achieving a legislative majority, and lent his talented aides and his own strategic acumen to other candidates. Even after his decisive loss to John Bel Edwards for governor in 2015 and his announcement that he'd retire at the end of 2016, he still had a hand in electing his replacement John Kennedy and two new members of Congress, Mike Johnson and Clay Higgins.
So now that both Jindal and Vitter are safely in the private sector, it's fair to ask who's in charge here?
The answer, so far, is nobody.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, who had to defer his own ambitions when Jindal briefly claimed the 1st District Congressional seat, made up for lost time and is now the House Majority Whip and the state's best-known current GOP officeholder. But while his protégé and former aide, state Rep. Cameron Henry, has emerged as Edwards' most determined legislative foil, Scalise himself is largely focused on the national scene.
Both U.S. Senators, Bill Cassidy and Kennedy, were effectively sponsored by Vitter and his associates, and both won by essentially followed the path that Vitter forged in 2010 and making their races all about national partisanship. Vitter triumphed back then, despite his own scandal, by casting himself as the man who would stop President Barack Obama. Cassidy followed up four years later by linking independent-minded Democrat Mary Landrieu so closely with Obama that she had no chance.
Yet now that Vitter's gone, they appear to free agents rather than part of an organized team. One place that played out in public recently is in the Judiciary Committee, where Cassidy warmly endorsed attorney Kyle Duncan, the White House's choice for an appeals court seat in New Orleans. Kennedy, meanwhile, pointedly withheld his support and made a big show of his pique with the Trump administration's selection process, before ultimately saying that he'd vote for Duncan's confirmation.
The Duncan nomination exposed a rift between Kennedy and another ambitious Republican, Attorney General Jeff Landry, who went so far as to appear in an ad touting Duncan's nomination. He's largely doing his own thing, which is basically to pick ideologically-based fights with the Edwards administration and to criticize the largely-Democratic city of New Orleans. That's a habit that Kennedy shares, even if they appear to be pursuing it independently of one another.
The new year does offer a few opportunities for organizational clarity.
One will come when long-serving state GOP chair Roger Villere steps down. The party itself has never been particularly powerful, but it will be instructive to watch various power players choose up sides over who should replace him.
Another will be the slow-developing race for governor in 2019. Republican strategists have long viewed Edwards as vulnerable and have been pining to try to pick him off. So far, only U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham is openly exploring a run, and Edwards' resilient poll numbers may deter others. But one sign of an organized party is the ability to unify behind a single candidate, so it's worth watching for whether that happens.
Or it could be that nobody in particular will rise to the top, that the splintered GOP status quo will persist into 2018. Should that happen, I know one person who probably wouldn't complain: A Democrat named John Bel Edwards.