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Bernhard in Louisiana U.S. Senate Race?

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Thursday, February 1st, 2008
Baton Rouge, Louisiana

THE THREE HUNDRED POUND GORILLA
IN LOUISIANA’S U.S. SENATE RACE

Some 4,000 participants, the largest Mardi Gras crowd in history, jammed the Washington Hilton grand ballroom to celebrate the annual gathering of Louisiana’s political establishment this past weekend. There was plenty of talk of the coming presidential election, as well as open seats for Congress in Louisiana’s first, fourth, and sixth Districts. But the main focus, hands-down, was the U.S. Senate race where incumbent Mary Landrieu is in a tough fight for a third term.

Louisiana Republicans were ballyhooing state Treasurer John Kennedy, and Secretary of State Jay Dardenne. Kennedy was in attendance, but surprisingly, was out of sight most the weekend. Dardenne at this stage is noncommittal, but worked the crowd at every opportunity. Key Dardenne supporters made no bones about the fact that they feel Kennedy has some baggage, and will be open to negative attacks by the Democrats.

Dardenne was all but in the race six months ago before an auto accident put him out of commission. Some broken ribs have taken time to heal, and kept him on the sidelines until recently. Where Kennedy has been much more in the public eye across the state, Dardenne has been quietly working behind the scenes courting key Republican Party operatives. He feels party support, on both the state and national levels, will be the key to raising the significant campaign funds needed. If Kennedy comes under heavy attack from the Landrieu campaign and the Democratic Party, and some of the negatives stick, Dardenne hopes to be in the catbird seat to be the acceptable alternative.

The incumbent Senator took advantage of the thousands in attendance, and was certainly the most high profile public official at event after event. The Landrieu hospitality suite was jammed from morning till late at night. Mary Landrieu made it clear that she was in fighting form, and will be a formidable candidate for re election. She sang with other officials at her suite karaoke party, visited from table to table at the ball, and was all over the dance floor. If she is facing an uphill campaign back home, you would not have known it in Washington over the weekend.

But lurking on the sidelines, holding a number of private meetings, was someone who could well be a formidable force in this race. The 300-pound gorilla with significant personal wealth that he could plow into such a coming statewide race. Jim Bernhard is Chairman of Louisiana’s largest public traded company, the Shaw Group based in Baton Rouge. He is the former chairman of the state Democratic Party, and has made no bones about his interest in serving as a major statewide elected official in Louisiana. Bernhard is saying nothing publicly, but behind the scenes is seeking advice.

One option is for Bernhard to run as an independent. Louisiana has a high number of independents, with some 25% of registered voters not being labeled as either Republican or Democrat. In fact, there are only 55,000 fewer independents registered than there are Republicans in the Bayou state.And if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg runs as an independent, and spends some $100 million his key aids say he is planning on spending, this would certainly legitimize any third party effort in Louisiana. 

Bernhard also would reportedly contribute significantly from his own pocket. He apparently has polled this issue and is encouraged by the number of voters throughout Louisiana that are turned off by both major political parties.It’s also not surprising that Bernhard is receiving encouragement from key Democrats in the state to hold off for two years, and gear up to take on Republican incumbent David Vitter. They point out that no matter how much money a candidate is able to spend, it just takes a lot of time to get around the state and make the numerous personal contacts that generally are required to be victorious. Governor Bobby Jindal is the latest success story showing how hard work over a period of years can lead to victory. In fact, Vitter himself jumped way out front in his Senate bid four years ago by laying an early foundation.

Bernhard is telling friends he has the luxury of not having to run in the primaries, and waiting until early fall to make a decision. By that time, Landrieu and her challengers will have been at each others’ throats for some time, and he will be in a better position of making a final decision. A telling sign will be what Bernhardt does in the next 60 days. If you see him on the speaking circuit, addressing chambers of commerce and civic groups throughout the state, it will be a sign that he is ready to spend money and get on the campaign trail.

It looks like the fall presidential election will create much more interest than last year’s gubernatorial contest. A presidential race, a donnybrook of a U.S. Senate race, three hotly contested congressional races, and a whole list of regional and local contests including the mayor’s race in Baton Rouge, add up to big media bucks being spent, and a much bigger turnout at the polls.And no matter how you personally analyze it, it’s going to be a fascinating season for political watchers all over Louisiana.

******

 ” An election is coming. Universal peace is declared and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.”

– T. S. Eliot

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

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