By all appearances, David Vitter is well on his way to becoming Louisiana's next governor. The senator leads in the polls, and fellow Republicans are so confident he'll win that they're already courting his favor in the hopes of getting appointed to the U.S. Senate seat he would leave behind.
But Louisiana is not like other states, and the potential entry of two candidates into the race could introduce new risk to a governor's run that currently has the hallmarks of a coronation.
Russel Honoré, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, and attorney Tony Clayton are both considering a run at Baton Rouge. Honoré has floated his interest in the race for months. Clayton announced his interest this past weekend. Clayton identifies as a conservative Democrat; Honoré does not identify with either major party. Both men are African American.
It's not that either candidate is likely to topple Vitter; both would be long shots. But due to Louisiana's uncommon primary system, their entry into the race complicates a currently straightforward path to victory for Vitter.
Under Louisiana's election law, the top two primary vote-getters—regardless of their party affiliation—advance to the general election. (If a candidate wins an outright majority in the primary, he or she wins the office with no further voting necessary.)
The most recent public poll from Southern Media and Opinion Research showed Vitter leading the four-candidate field with 38 percent of the vote. The lone Democrat in the race, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, had 25 percent. And two other declared Republican candidates—Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle—trailed at 17 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
If those trends hold when the state holds its primary on Oct. 24, Vitter and Edwards advance to the general election, where—in a state that's red and getting redder— Vitter would be the heavy favorite to dispatch his Democratic rival.
But there's an alternative scenario, should Honoré or Clayton enter the race. In that scenario, either candidate pulls enough Democratic votes away from Edwards that he falls out of the top two. And instead, the general election becomes a contest between two Republicans. In that scenario, Vitter would again be the favorite, but there would be far more uncertainty.
"If one or both of these wild cards gets into the race, it certainly seems like it would be a game changer for David Vitter," said Jeremy Alford, the editor of LaPolitics.
"That's where you bring in one or both of these African-American candidates, one Democrat, one no party affiliation, and you can see where they could cut into Edwards's vote and possibly propel either Jay Dardenne or Scott Angelle into a spot for an all-GOP runoff," Alford said.
One former Democratic staffer thinks a second Republican could run competitively against Vitter: "I don't think it's a slam dunk that Jay Dardenne, if he gets into a runoff with Vitter, beats Vitter, but I think that he clearly has a better chance of making it a real race, and making it a much closer race," said Robert Mann, who was a top aide to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
Vitter's campaign declined to comment.
Now, the question is whether either Honoré or Clayton will run. And if either does (or both do), how much support could he (or they) get?
Honoré is a well-respected, 37-year U.S. Army veteran best known for his role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he led Joint Task Force Katrina and spearheaded the cleanup and recovery efforts in New Orleans. In the years since, Honore has become a prominent environmental activist involved with a group called the Green Army. He's a vocal critic of Louisiana's oil and gas industries, which he thinks have "hijacked our democracy," and pulls no punches in his broad-based criticism of the state's political class, which he views as beholden to big energy companies. "I'm no party, because in Louisiana half of them are crooked from the neck up and the other half are crooked from the neck down," Honoré said. "Of course there's exceptions in the middle of people who are trying to do the right thing, but in the Louisiana legislature that's the minority."
There is also plenty of time for candidates to declare for the election, as Louisiana election laws are conducive to late entries. The filing deadline for the gubernatorial primary isn't until September 10, and candidates need only pay a $750 filing fee or submit 5,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. "This is Louisiana," said locally based pollster Bernie Pinsonat. "We still have a pretty good ways to go, and most governor's races have at least two or three major surprises."
Finances may be a limiting factor. Other candidates have been fundraising for months or even years, building expensive operations with the media reach to drown out a newcomer whose campaign lacks comparable cash.
Race will also play a role in the election. Honoré and Clayton would have a chance at connecting with African-American voters. But neither should assume those voters will vote along racial lines, said Mann, the former Democratic aide. "Just the fact that they're African American doesn't mean that they're going to get a chunk of the African-American vote if they don't have the money to run a legitimate campaign," he said. "[Honoré] is fairly well known in Louisiana, but I wouldn't say he's a household name. ... I question how much impact they can really have, and that is all to be determined."
Complicating a potential run from either candidate are rumors that some state Republicans are backing the candidates—but not because they'll win. There have been suggestions that Republicans looking to beat Vitter have encouraged African-American candidates to run not because they want them to win, but because they think such a candidate would keep Democrats out of the general election entirely—splitting votes away from Edwards and vaulting a non-Vitter Republican into second place in the primary.
Three potential African-American candidates were reportedly approached earlier in the year about running—former Opelousas Mayor Don Cravins Sr., state Sen. Rick Gallot, and Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden. None of them said much publicly about who was behind the recruitment efforts, but in March Gallot called it "a divide and conquer technique" that he wouldn't participate in.
Honoré shares those suspicions. "These guys must think I fell off a pumpkin truck. They all want me to run because it would assure a Vitter [primary] win," Honoré said. "There are some people who are cheering me on to run, but for all the wrong reasons. It's not about the issues we talked about, because many people have been brainwashed that it's not about the issues, it's about the ideology."