Monday, February 06, 2006

Jindal Aims to Make Blanco Another Katrina Casualty

By Stuart Rothenberg

As political junkies across the country focus on November’s increasingly important midterm elections, friends and political allies of Louisiana 1st district Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) have something else on their mind: the Bayou State’s 2007 race for governor.

Incumbent Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) has already announced that she will run for re-election for the state’s top job, and Republicans are acting like sharks that smell blood in the water.

Blanco received mediocre reviews at best for her (and the state’s) response before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, with critics complaining that she didn’t show strength or leadership skills during the crisis.

Jindal isn’t talking publicly about 2007 just yet. “Now’s not the time for politics. Bobby’s 100 percent focused on rebuilding our state,” says Jindal’s chief of staff, Timmy Teepell.

But the Congressman’s friends are already talking about a statewide run, and they are signaling to other Republicans who might be interested in running for governor that Jindal will be a candidate.

Jindal, whose parents came to the United States from India, finished first in the 2003 open primary for governor and was widely viewed as the frontrunner for the runoff. But in the campaign’s final days, Blanco, a two-term lieutenant governor with conservative views on abortion and gun control, overtook him, winning by 4 points, 52 percent to 48 percent.

A year later, at the age of 33, Jindal was elected to Congress in a New Orleans-area district vacated by Republican Rep. David Vitter, who now serves in the Senate.

Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Brown University and Oxford University, previously served as secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals, executive director of the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, president of the University of Louisiana System and assistant secretary for planning and evaluation of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In person, Jindal is as impressive as his résumé. In more than a dozen years interviewing candidates for Congress, he ranks with a handful of the most impressive challengers and open-seat candidates whom I have interviewed. That list also includes now-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and unsuccessful Senate hopeful Jack Ryan (R-Ill.).

Blanco apparently got a break recently when Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D) — the son of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu (D) and the brother of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) — announced that he would challenge New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin later this year. While that does not completely remove Landrieu from the 2007 governor’s race, it makes his entry into that contest unlikely.

Still, Blanco at this point is badly damaged goods, and everyone knows it. And that could bring Democratic hopefuls into next year’s race, particularly since Louisiana holds an open primary, in which all candidates, regardless of party, run in a single contest. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the top two votegetters, regardless of party, meet in a runoff.

Jindal looks like the logical GOP choice to run again, given his narrow loss in 2003 and his preference for serving in an executive capacity rather than in a legislative office. His service in Congress adds to his already ample credentials for higher political office, and it gives him a political base from which to launch a statewide bid.

Supporters of the Congressman note that Vitter won the 2004 Senate race in part because the party rallied behind him early and helped keep other GOP hopefuls out of that race. But with the governorship so clearly up for grabs, other Republicans may jump in as well.

For Democrats, the question is whether they will stick with an incumbent governor who is now much weaker than she was a year ago, or find a more appealing alternative. Many Republicans would rather see Blanco as the Democrats’ choice.

Demographics explain part of why the Republicans are so optimistic. Hundreds of thousands of people have left the state, many of them from Democratic Orleans Parish. While estimates of population change are incomplete and should be treated gingerly — and polls in the state should be regarded with great skepticism given the obvious difficulty of drawing a reliable sample that accurately reflects the state’s electorate next November — few doubt that the exodus from the state has hurt the Democratic Party.

Unlike most of its neighbors in the South, Louisiana has resisted a full-scale move into the Republican column. The combination of working-class whites and African Americans have kept Democrats competitive in the state. But the population shifts following Katrina may well lead to a fundamental partisan shift, and the 2007 governor’s race could be the first test of whether that is happening.

It could also put Jindal on the national stage at a time when Republicans are looking for new — and very different — faces.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 2, 2006. Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.