Stephen Waguespack, a Republican candidate for Louisiana governor, listens to a supporter during his Election Night party Oct. 14, 2023, in Baton Rouge. Waguespack finished a distant third in the primary election. (Matthew Perschall for Louisiana Illuminator)
Stunning. It’s the word that best describes Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s outright win Saturday in the Louisiana governor’s primary election. It not only applies to the outcome but also to his campaign team’s execution that produced it.
As much as an early endorsement from the state GOP and his decision to skip nearly every televised debate put Landry on an island, he actually thrived in that setting. It’s hard to imagine he can govern in the same way, but the strategy unquestionably gave Landry the upper hand among a field of candidates that failed to gain any ground on him throughout the election cycle.
Before diving into the individual candidates, it’s important to single out the influence the two major state parties had on the 2023 governor’s race. The Republican Party of Louisiana picked its horse and rode him to a strong finish. The other GOP competitors in the field might think it was unfair, but the tactic certainly worked.
Louisiana Democrats saw the exact opposite. It started in February with party chairperson Katie Bernhardt making the unfathomable decision to promote herself in a nebulous commercial that only served to undermine the party’s eventual endorsed candidate, Shawn Wilson.
Further evidence of dissent and discord among state Democratic leadership unfolded throughout the year and is probably better explored in a separate commentary.
We’ll be talking about the Democrats’ demise and Landry’s resounding win for some time to come.
What worked: There was no question Hewitt placed education as the foundation of her platform. With her track record of successful STEM proposals in the Louisiana Senate, she had a policy history to refer to when projecting her plans as governor. Hewitt also singled herself out as a loyal friend of oil and gas when most other candidates discussed the ongoing energy transition.
What didn’t: Her snug relationship with the fossil fuel industry didn’t turn into the substantial financial backing she needed to make a serious bid for governor. Hewitt also didn’t see a boost from being the only woman in the field, perhaps the result of her history as a consistent anti-abortion vote in the legislature.
What worked: Going back to his time as a congressman in the 3rd District, the Landry machine has consistently engineered a winning formula. Much to the dismay of the other GOP candidates, his early endorsement from the Louisiana Republican Party triggered a financial windfall from wealthy donors and political action committees. Plus, his decisions to skip nearly all of the televised debates caused absolutely no damage to his standing ahead of the election. Landry’s opponents were largely ineffective when calling out his absence.
Landry also played up crime as the most pressing problem facing the state, albeit one that the governor only has limited ability to address.
What didn’t: There’s not much to nitpick here because, in the end, his shortcomings didn’t faze his supporters. He might ultimately have to answer for hiring a former Trump aide accused of sexual harassment and financing from a billionaire who backed the Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington, D.C. But again, neither of these factors have swayed his base in the least.
What worked: The Lake Charles trial attorney didn’t hesitate spending the considerable money he put into his own campaign. His TV and radio commercials were arguably the best produced among the candidates, and he saturated the airwaves with them through the pre-election period. You might not have agreed with what he had to say, but the soft-spoken but firm-stanced Lundy came across as the most sincere in debates and ads.
What didn’t: Lundy didn’t really distinguish himself so much as an alternative independent. Instead, he came off as an extreme and somewhat odd Democrat-Republican hybrid. Instead of occupying the middle ground, he sought to make polar opposites attract. In one breath, Lundy wanted the fossil fuel industry held accountable for its damage to the Louisiana environment. In the next, he’s blaming a mass school shooting on “transgender indoctrination.”
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What worked: Schroder didn’t hesitate to go big on television advertising, although his 5% showing in Saturday’s election revealed his appeal simply didn’t register with voters. The treasurer’s wife, Ellie, was the clear standout among candidates’ spouses in assorted campaign ads and numerous public appearances.
What didn’t: Schroder beat the anti-corruption drum at a steady pace throughout his campaign, but he stopped well short of any specific attacks against his opponents. Schroder has never shied from confronting Landry during their time on the Louisiana Bond Commission. But during the governor’s race, neither the treasurer nor any other candidate went after Landry for his aforementioned ethically questionable actions. Schroder’s promise to “run government like a business” failed to find a receptive audience, much as it has for countless Republicans who’ve pitched it before.
What worked: The whole idea behind Waguespack’s entry into the governor’s race was to give voters an alternative to Landry and Wilson. He certainly differentiated himself from the Republican and Democratic frontrunners, and he managed to galvanize a small but influential group of generous GOP donors.
What didn’t: It wasn’t until the final weeks of his campaign that Waguespack effectively communicated his platform. He has as much policy experience as anyone in the race, but it was seldom cast as an true advantage. Plus, his opponents effectively kept him anchored with his ties to the fiscally rocky times of the Bobby Jindal era in state government.
What worked: With apologies for the unintentional transportation secretary pun, Wilson stuck to the high road throughout his campaign. Opposition efforts to paint him as a Biden lackey felt forced because Wilson chose not to dignify them with a response. There was no questioning his liberal bonafides, but he didn’t beat moderate voters over the head with them.
What didn’t: Most would consider Wilson is one the good guys, but his candidacy just couldn’t manage to energize a large enough base of voters to derail Landry. As we discussed before, it’s a symptom of the larger dysfunction within the state Democratic Party. In an election where he needed every bit of leverage possible, Bernhardt and company barely offered Wilson a friendly nudge.
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