Republicans surveying the country for reasons to be hopeful about their party’s future have found at least one bright spot on the landscape. In Louisiana, Governor Kathleen Blanco’s post-Katrina stumbles crippled her chances for reelection, and last March she announced that she would not be on the ballot when Louisianans vote in statewide elections this October. Her opponent last time around, Congressman Bobby Jindal, has taken an enormous lead in early polling and currently leads his closest competitor (undecided) by 35 percentage points.
Jindal, who was a Rhodes scholar and served as president of the Louisiana state university system before being elected to Congress in 2004, discussed his lead in the polls, dirty politics, and his state’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina in an interview with National Review Online earlier this week. In Washington, Jindal has voted consistently as a conservative Republican. But in Louisiana, he says, political parties are less important: “I’d caution you against looking at it through a Democrat or Republican lens down here, because so many officeholders don’t identify themselves that way, and a lot of voters don’t think in those terms,” he says. “I really do think it’s more of a reform versus a status-quo mentality. I think that’s what this election is really going to be about.”
For an example of how party affiliation is relatively insignificant in Louisiana, just look at Jindal’s main opponent in the race so far: state senator Walter Boasso. Boasso started out his career as a Democrat, but switched to the Republican party in the mid-1990s. Boasso remained a Republican until last April, at which time the Louisiana Democratic party, desperate for a recognizable candidate after former U.S. Senator John Breaux ducked out, convinced Boasso to switch parties again.
Unlike Blanco, Boasso’s work for his storm-struck district has boosted his popularity. But Jindal argues that people outside the state tend not to realize that many of its most significant problems predate Katrina: “Certainly Katrina exacerbated frustration with the state government,” he says. “We saw a lot of failures at multiple levels, so that’s not to exonerate the federal or local governments either. There was a lot of bureaucracy in the rescue attempts and a lot of bureaucracy in the recovery attempts. You look at the Road Home program” — Blanco’s widely criticized homeowner-assistance program — “and some of these other debacles that have just gone on for far too long and not helped enough people despite the billions of dollars that have been invested.
“But even before Katrina,” Jindal says, “if you look at our state before Katrina, we were still one of the worst places in the country to do business, according to Forbes, we were the only state in the south with people moving out faster than they were moving in, we were ranked the second-most dangerous state after Nevada, New Orleans had one of the highest per-capita murder rates, according to the FBI. So you look at what was going on even before the storms, and clearly we had challenges even before then.
“And here’s the frustrating thing,” he says. “Louisianans know that we’re not a poor state. We’re a blessed state. We’ve had poor leadership, but off our coast comes 30 percent of the nation’s oil and gas, 30 percent of the nation’s fisheries. We’re home to five of the nation’s largest ports. We’re the only state with six major rail lines. When you look at all that, we should be running circles around every state in the country.”
Jindal argues that the state has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to turn things around, based on the convergence of a number of factors that can give Louisianans a chance to enact some badly needed reforms. First of all, he says, “We’ve got term limits in the legislature, and I think that will be as telling as anything else. We’ve never had term limits before in the legislature in Louisiana, and half of our legislators are term-limited out.”
In Jindal’s eyes, this means that a lot of old-line Louisiana politicians who were obstacles to reform will be gone. In the eyes of some of the nation’s top political analysts, it also means that Republicans could take back the Louisiana house of representatives for the first time since Reconstruction.
Jindal explains what this means in practical terms: “We have a ridiculous tax structure. In our state we tax debt, new equipment, we tax utilities. These are exactly the wrong times to tax businesses. We discourage them from growing, investing, and from spending money in Louisiana to create jobs. Now would be the perfect time — with the surpluses, with a change in the legislature — to get rid of some of these taxes that are holding back our economy.”
Those surpluses, Jindal argues, have given the state the breathing room it needs to pass measures that will attract jobs and investment to the region: “When you look at it — the tens of billions of dollars that have been approved by the country to help us rebuild, the billions of dollars in surpluses we’ve had recently, billions of dollars in oil and gas royalties we’re now getting for the first time — the stars are lined up for change.
“We’re not going to get a better chance in my lifetime,” he says. “This is the best chance we’re going to have.”
Despite Jindal’s lead in the polls, the race could change dramatically late in the game because of Louisiana’s unusual primary system. If Jindal fails to win over 50 percent of the vote on October 20, he’ll have to face the candidate with the second-most votes in a runoff election on November 19. “There may very well be a runoff — that’s completely up to the voters,” Jindal says. “With all the money being spent against us, we’re ready to win this election all the way through to a November runoff.
In 2003, Jindal won the most votes in the primary election, but ended up losing to Blanco in a runoff after a late flurry of negative advertisements attacked his record as a state health administrator. This time, the Democrats are going negative early. The governor’s race made national headlines last week when the Louisiana Democratic party started running an ad in the northern part of the state accusing Jindal, who is Catholic, of writing an article for The New Oxford Review that insulted Protestants.
Jindal is determined not to let negative ads undo his candidacy this time. For one thing, because nothing in the article substantiates the ad’s claims, Jindal’s lawyers have asked TV stations to stop running it on the grounds that it’s defamatory. For another, Jindal has gone on the offensive and called on prominent state Democrats to denounce the ad.
So far, he says, the ad appears to have backfired. “We heard from hundreds of Democratic elected officials, from ministers from every denomination, denouncing the ad, denouncing the tactic, saying that it’s filled with lies, and saying that it’s inappropriate to attack someone for their Christian beliefs,” he says.
“The only times, the only times, I ever mention any denomination in the entire piece, I actually talk about the different things my church can learn from other churches,” he continues emphatically. Jindal, born to Indian immigrants in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, converted from Hinduism to Catholicism as a teenager. “I talk about, in positive terms, what the Baptists, the Lutherans, Evangelicals, the Anglican churches can teach my church. My whole point in that was that we should be united. We should be learning from each other.”
Jindal says that the timing of the ad is no coincidence: “Right before this ad went on the air, independent polls were showing our campaign doing incredibly well and getting traction talking about our policy,” he says. “It just struck me that this was the work of somebody desperate to change the conversation — probably somebody who felt like they had nothing to lose.”
He pauses, then adds: “To use a Catholic term — and forgive the pun — it just felt like a Hail Mary pass.”