The Southern Republican Leadership Conference won't generate the national media buzz that it engendered in years past when it opens in Kenner next Friday (Jan. 18), but conference chair Roger Villere Jr. says the gathering will make news nonetheless. At a minimum, it will attempt to rally Louisiana Republicans in advance of the 2019 statewide elections.
The conference, held every two to three years, typically serves as an early sounding board for GOP presidential hopefuls anxious to test their messages and their popularity before a decidedly partisan, reliably conservative crowd. In the past, the group also conducted straw polls of potential Republican presidential candidates.
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This time around, the conference will see no cavalcade of White House wannabes. President Donald Trump consistently polls in the high 70s among GOP voters — often higher in southern states — making the notion of a primary challenge a long shot at this point. The 2019 conference's agenda and slate of speakers therefore reflects a shift in focus from presidential politics to developing future leaders, honing policy positions and improving campaign strategies and messaging (especially to women and minority voters).
"We hope to create excitement that will lead the national party into 2020, and at the same time create opportunities for leadership as we try to elect a Republican governor here in Louisiana later in 2019," Villere said in a recent phone interview. "With state legislative elections on the ballot in addition to our governor's race, we hope to elect even more Republicans to the Legislature.
"Nationally, we have a number of speakers coming to kick off 2020 — and hopefully set the stage for policies, issues and messages that will help us take back the House and keep the Senate."
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Villere acknowledges the timing of this conference has presented some challenges. The initial target date was October 2018, which put it in the middle of a difficult midterm election cycle for House Republicans. Pushing it back to January put it right after the new congressional term began — and, of course, the federal government shutdown that dominates all political news.
"The schedule change to January hurt speakers' participation because many of our perennial speakers just got sworn in to the new Congress, plus there's some election fatigue," said Villere, who for years chaired the Louisiana Republican Party. "Still, we expect to see around a thousand people attend."
The list of confirmed speakers reflects the spotlight on Louisiana, which is one of only three states holding gubernatorial elections this year. The speakers include all five Louisiana Republican congressmen, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, state Attorney General Jeff Landry, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and others from the Bayou State.
Congressman Ralph Abraham of Alto, in northeast Louisiana, will try to make a big impression as he begins his challenge to Democratic incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards. As Advocate columnist Stephanie Grace recently noted, Edwards' party affiliation makes him a favorite GOP target, but his favorable-to-unfavorable poll numbers among Louisiana voters (49-30 percent) suggest it will take more than a partisan push to beat him.
Meanwhile, as voters yearn for an end to the federal shutdown, both national political parties are already looking ahead to 2020.