Blanco Bests Bobby

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A Cajun GOP post-mortem.

A week ago today, polls showed Republican candidate Bobby Jindal at least ten points ahead of Democratic challenger Kathleen Blanco going into the homestretch of the Louisiana governor’s race. Yet on Saturday, Blanco beat the GOP wunderkind by four-percentage points, leaving the state’s Republicans stunned and depressed. What happened?

”Jindal ran a perfect campaign for five weeks,” said John Maginnis, the state’s leading political journalist. “But it’s a six-week campaign.”

Most observers agree that Jindal’s collapse in the final week had to do with the health-care issue. When outgoing Republican Gov. Mike Foster appointed Jindal head of the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals in 1995, Jindal brought the agency out of bankruptcy, and turned a $400 million deficit into a surplus by slashing the budget. Campaigning for governor, Jindal cited this experience as an example of how his management expertise solved a major governing crisis.

But Blanco turned it against him in the campaign homestretch by accusing Jindal of balancing the Medicaid budget on the backs of the poor, who rely on Louisiana’s public-hospital system for health care. A devastating negative television ad the Blanco campaign ran in the final days featured a wheelchair-bound doctor who used to work in the state’s public health system accusing Jindal of ruining it.

“The doctor’s last line was, ‘By the way, I’m a staunch Republican,’” says Maginnis. “It was a powerful ad, and Jindal didn’t respond.”

The Republican did, in fact, challenge the claims made by the ad, but he did so through the free media. He did not produce a commercial directly taking on the Blanco spot.

“He could have easily done it. He had plenty of information, and there were a whole lot of people, for two weeks in a row, clamoring for them to go up with response ads. It’s really odd that they didn’t. Maybe they were overconfident,” says a Baton Rouge Republican insider.

“They did have ads slamming her for going negative, but they didn’t go after the substance of her ads,” he continues. “They never gave people a reason to believe that the things she was saying weren’t true.”

Prior to this, the wonkish Jindal had successfully defined the race as a new-ideas-vs.-old-politics contest. Blanco turned the race around by doing a judo-flip on her opponent, casting Jindal’s strength as a weakness.

“She made it, ‘I’m a human being, and you’re a robot; you’re a numbers-cruncher, and therefore a people-cruncher,’” said Wayne Parent, an LSU political-science professor and author of the forthcoming book, Inside the Carnival: Unmasking Louisiana Politics.

Along those lines, a defining moment in the race came in the final televised debate, three days before Election Day, in which each candidate was asked to reveal a key life-shaping event. Jindal talked about “when Christ found me,” his conversion to Christianity in college. Blanco, a 60-year-old grandmother, spoke with tears in her eyes about the death of her son in an industrial accident. Says Parent, “That crystallized it.”

That is, voters who were tempted to think of Jindal, who is only 32, as callow and cerebral, were presented with an older woman who may not have been as smart or as sharp as her opponent, but who had lived long enough to suffer, and who could therefore better relate to ordinary people. (Ironically, this is the same reason why candidate George W. Bush bested Al Gore in the 2000 presidential debates, though Gore arguably won on points.)

This may also explain why Jindal did so poorly among north Louisiana white voters, who are the state’s most reliably conservative. While Jindal did remarkably well for a Republican in cutting Blanco’s support among black voters (who still gave her 91 percent of their votes), the Democrat did decidedly better in stealing significant portions of Jindal’s base. And that made all the difference in a state as poor as Louisiana.

“If there was a racist backlash against Jindal anywhere, it would be in north Louisiana, in [David] Duke country,” says Maginnis. “Those are more blue-collar, working-class, and lower-income people. But their economics are more Democratic, and that health-care argument is a big one for them. If you don’t use the state’s charity hospitals, you know someone who does, and Blanco’s ads made people think [Jindal] has a head, but not a heart.”

Victory in the governor’s race was the second big win for Louisiana Democrats within the past year, having last fall bucked the strong regional trend toward the GOP by reelecting U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu with a brilliant last-minute ad campaign tying Republican challenger Suzanne Haik Terrell to the popular George W. Bush. Terrell had been running as a Bush Republican, a smart move in a state where the president is quite popular. But the Landrieu camp seized on a Bush-administration agricultural policy unpopular with the state’s sugarcane farmers, and used it to question Terrell’s loyalty to the state.

Given the Louisiana-specific nature of Landrieu’s victory, it was impossible to generalize about how Democrats nationally might capitalize on her strategy. Similarly, given that the conservative Blanco only marginally differed from Jindal on policy points (her slightly-more-liberal view on abortion rights helped her with suburban women), it’s hard to see how national Democrats can translate her victory into a winning game plan elsewhere. This race was decided on personality–but there’s something useful for both parties in that.

“Terrell and Jindal, and [former GOP governor] Buddy Roemer, when he was running for reelection [in 1991], were perceived as elite, I-told-you-so people, not populist Republicans,” says LSU’s Parent. Indeed, it’s a given in American politics that candidates rarely if ever win based on their resume and grade-point average. Jindal may be the most intelligent and accomplished man ever to have lost a statewide runoff in Louisiana.

But he did lose, and so did the state. Though Blanco is that rarest of Louisiana Democrats, a clean one, that is the only unconventional thing about her. Only the wildest optimist would expect her leadership to do much to lift the Bayou State out of its chronic economic and structural malaise. As a dispirited Baton Rouge Republican told me on Sunday, “Louisiana’s not going to go backwards under Blanco, but it’s sure not going to move forward. We just can’t afford this status quo.”

Rod Dreher, a native of Louisiana, is a writer and columnist for the Dallas Morning News.