Winners swim with the mainstream

Special to the Herald-Guide
October 28, 2011 at 9:35 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By John Maginnis,

Unlike the polarized electoral environment of the 2010 elections, the year of Sen. David Vitter and the tea party, the winning place to be this year was in the middle.

In Louisiana, the political center has been a dangerous spot to occupy in the open primary elections of the past, when the strongest Democrat and the strongest Republican squeezed out moderates in the middle. But when one side dominates, as Republicans do now, and an internal struggle ensues, as it did in this election, power flows down the mainstream.

That Gov. Bobby Jindal did not draw a known candidate was the result of more than his massive campaign war chest scaring off competitors. Conservative as he is, he made a point of governing from the center, or close enough to it, to marginalize his critics on the left and, yes, the right.

If Jindal did well not to have potent enemies, re-elected Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne benefitted from not having certain powerful friends. To not be the choice of Vitter or Jindal was all that many Democrats and mainstream Republicans needed to know to pick him over Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser. The two powerful Republicans, particularly Vitter, seemed to make the point for Dardenne that he was his own man.

While Jindal officially stayed out of the lieutenant governor’s race, Vitter got behind Nungesser early and publicly, making it his mission to terminate Dardenne’s political career. He also backed outgoing Speaker of the House Jim Tucker against Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who had been Dardenne’s first assistant.

Part of that was payback for Dardenne not endorsing Vitter last year and entertaining the notion of running against him. But a strong motivation, as the senator stated, was to exact more conservative rigor among GOP candidates and to cast off the RINOs, those Republicans in name only.

Through the political action committee he started, Vitter targeted Democratic legislators in rural districts that tend to vote Republican in national elections.

Tea party groups around the state went farther, opposing not only Democrats but also some Republican incumbents deemed to be too moderate.

Vitter-backed conservative candidates, from Nungesser and Tucker to legislative challengers, were better funded than the more moderate incumbents, whom were attacked as liberals.

That worked well last year, this year not so much. The more that Vitter was linked to the statewide candidates, the stronger was the message to Democrats, even mainstream Republicans, to go the other way.

Dardenne and Schedler both beat Vitter’s allies. Two tea party challenges to moderate GOP senators also fell well short. Conservative Republicans failed to take any of the three targeted Democratic districts in the Senate or to oust any of the five House Democrats they went after.

It was hardly a victory for Democrats. Republicans hold all seven statewide elected offices and clear majorities in the Legislature.

Yet within the Republicans brand, voters left room for moderates, especially when Democrats had no other choices.

What’s different from 2010, besides the national political overtones, is that Republicans this time did not have the closed party primary, which winnowed out moderates and favored the more conservative candidate advancing to the general election.

Now that the state has returned to the open primary system for all elections, conservative Republicans need Democratic rivals, the more liberal the better, to polarize the field and divide the middle.

This election’s sobering message to Vitter and the Republican party’s right wing is: if the Democrats don’t play, you lose.

If the senator is entertaining any notion of running for governor himself in 2015, his fate would seem to rest with the bunch he can’t control, Democrats.

If they don’t field a viable candidate of their own and are faced with Gov. Vitter, they will look for the more moderate Republican option, such as, well, Dardenne.

It is also a sobering message to Democrats that their best way to influence elections is to not compete in them.

They won’t sit out every big race, but at least they know they can afford to pick their fights and still sway the ones when they defer.

Until the political pendulum swings back their way, they can keep it from going too far to the other.

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