Democrat Ran to Right in Louisiana

Just as Democratic Sen. Zell Miller’s (Ga.) book arguing that the Democratic Party has lost relevance in the South because it is too far left on social issues hit the New York Times bestseller list, Democrat Kathleen Blanco provided ironic confirmation of Miller’s theory. She ran to the right on social issues and won the Louisiana governorship.

Blanco defeated conservative former Bush administration official Bobby Jindal, 52% to 48%. She thus became the only Democrat to win a gubernatorial race this year. (Republicans earlier took the governorships in Kentucky and Mississippi, and also in California’s unique recall election.)

Blanco ran dramatically to the right of her party on social issues, opposing gun control, abortion, affirmative action and benefits for gay couples.

Jindal’s firm commitment to conservative principles and Horatio Alger-type background had inspired Republicans nationwide. Only 32, he is the son of Indian immigrants, and holds degrees from Brown and Oxford. He will remain a rising GOP star.

Right up until the eve of the November 15 runoff election, Jindal appeared to have a good chance to win. He had led a crowded field in Louisiana’s unusual primary (in which all candidates regardless of party are listed on the same ballot) with 33%. Blanco had placed second with 19%. Only two days before the run-off, a tracking poll by Verne Kennedy, dean of Louisiana pollsters, showed Jindal ahead 44% to 41%. But a strong turn out of 46% in the black community (in which Blanco took 91% of the vote) provided the margin Blanco needed for victory.

Yet, Jindal’s effort was hurt not only by the strong black turn out and Blanco’s unusual appeal to a socially conservative electorate, but also by some mistakes made by his own campaign.

“Clearly, Jindal was hurt by his failure to respond to final television attacks by his opponent that charged he had made cuts that took away people’s health care when he headed [Louisiana’s] Health and Hospitals Department,” said Lou Gehrig Burnett, editor of the Louisiana political newsletter Fax-Net Update. “Blanco really hit home with that.” Jindal press secretary Trey Williams conceded as much, noting that the Democrat “had seven different attack ads in the end, pointing out that 60,000 people stopped getting Medicaid benefits when Bobby headed the [Health] department in the 1990’s. What they didn’t say was that this was happening because of the tough new welfare laws, plus the fact that people were getting jobs and getting off the state system. And when her ads said he was cutting the budget of the state’s health care system, they didn’t say how Bobby cut fraud and waste in the system and turned its $300-400 million deficit into a $200-300 million surplus in two years.” But Jindal never took to the airwaves to tell this side of the story to counter Blanco’s attacks because, said Williams, “Bobby wanted to run an issues-oriented campaign.”

Jindal was also hurt because he failed to invite President Bush to campaign for him-even after Bush proved a strong positive factor in the GOP gubernatorial wins in Kentucky and Mississippi. Williams said that the campaign did not invite Bush even though the President called Jindal on the night he won the primary and offered to do “anything I can” to help him. “Bobby said from Day One,” said Williams, “that the race would be won or lost in Louisiana and there was never any dissension in the campaign over his decision not to invite the President.”

Some Republicans suspect that Jindal may have lost some votes because of the marginal, but still present, David Duke-racist segment of the Louisiana electorate. Noting that Blanco carried all but three of the parishes (counties) in traditionally conservative Northern Louisiana, Burnett said, “the Dukesters may not have been keen on a woman governor, but they didn’t like the fact that Jindal was an Indian-American.”