Jeff Landry, the hard-line conservative leading Louisiana’s gubernatorial race, watched as the crowd gathered at a small Monroe restaurant, where his team had covered the tables and a lone Halloween skeleton with his merchandise. blue and yellow country style.
“How would you like to finish this in October?” ” Mr. Landry, the state attorney general, said, teasing the possibility that he would win the state’s multi-party primary this Saturday and ruling out the need for a runoff election next month.
He gave no details on any issues. He did not mention any of his opponents, whom he largely refused to debate. But his status as the race’s undisputed favorite suggests that for much of Louisiana, he has had little need to do any of that.
Mr. Landry has turned his aggressive lawsuit against the Biden administration and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a term-limited conservative Democrat, into a huge war chest, a slew of early Republican backers and what appears to be a comfortable lead in a crowded primary field.
Also on the ballot in Saturday’s “jungle primary” are two Democrats, four independents and seven other Republicans, none of whom have had the same visibility in recent years as Mr. Landry as an incumbent. ‘a statewide charge.
If he wins and cements Republican dominance over Louisiana government — Republicans already have supermajorities in the House and Senate, and former President Donald J. Trump won about 60 percent of the vote. the state in 2016 and 2020 – there is no doubt that Mr. Landry will push the state even further to the right on issues such as crime, the environment and LGBTQ rights.
The radical change in leadership would come at a time when Louisiana is losing population while most of its southern neighbors are booming, with employers and families worried about a growing brain drain, intensifying natural disasters and soaring insurance rates.
Mr. Landry’s dominance in the field has muted the state’s typically raucous politics, leaving the remaining candidates essentially fighting for second place in Saturday’s primary. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote, which most observers expect, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff on November 18.
Mr. Edwards, the only remaining Democratic governor in the Deep South, twice opposed the state’s conservative leaning in elections and maintained his support during his two terms. At times he managed to avoid conservative social measures that easily became law in neighboring Republican-led states, although he supported strict limits on abortion access and gun rights .
The race to replace him underscores how Louisiana’s populist, personality-driven local politics have increasingly given way to a focus on nationalized issues that divide between urban and rural areas. It also left candidates struggling to energize voters disillusioned by bitter national divisions and weary of inflation, grueling heat and the lasting ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.
Open to all candidates, regardless of political leaning, the primary field includes Shawn Wilson, a Democrat and former state transportation secretary, and Hunter Lundy, an independent evangelical attorney and former litigator. It also includes three prominent Republicans: Sharon Hewitt, state senator; Stephen Waguespack, former aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal and business lobbyist, and John Schroder, state treasurer.
“I’m here for the people, I’m not here for any political party,” Mr Lundy said, speaking to a reporter as he drove to spend time eating lamb and blood sausage, a Cajun sausage, with Elton Farmers. , west of New Orleans. It is unclear, however, whether enough voters will accept his deep Christian nationalism or medical skepticism.
As the leading Democratic candidate, Mr. Wilson is favored for the runoff, with several polls placing him in second place. If he defies the polls, he would be the first black candidate elected statewide in 150 years.
He highlighted his long experience working with both parties, particularly in the transportation department.
“The leadership that I can provide can curb the extremism that only satisfies a very small part of our state, whether it’s on the far left or the far right,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview. “That’s where the sweet spot of government should be: satisfying the masses.” »
At an event hosted by the Louisiana AFL-CIO in Gonzales, west of New Orleans, concerns about Mr. Landry’s views were echoed by several union workers gathered to hear Mr. Wilson speaking.
“The next four years could be the rest of our lives,” said Sean Clouatre, 48, a Democrat and local alderman in the village of French Settlement. “Because of the policies they might adopt and implement, it is always more difficult to remove them than to implement them.”
Mr. Landry’s Republican compatriots have struggled to carve out a distinct identity.
“We expected the race to be a little more focused on politics and issues,” Ms. Hewitt said. Stories of her time spent navigating the male-dominated oil and energy industries – including showering in a swimsuit on an oil rig due to the lack of doors – resonated with some women in election campaign, she said.
Ms. Hewitt was among those who were early upset by the state party’s unusually rapid support for Mr. Landry. Their frustration was then exacerbated by his extensive fundraising and refusal to participate in most candidate forums.
“I’m trying to say you can be conservative, but at the same time want to bring people together,” said Mr. Waguespack, who emphasized his experience as chief executive of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, rather than his years as a top aide to Governor Jindal, who quickly became unpopular following his failed presidential run.
He added: “Bringing people together is a good thing, not a weakness. »
As attorney general, Mr. Landry perfected a confrontational approach, at one point suing a journalist for requesting public records related to a sexual harassment investigation against one of his aides. After a court hearing on Louisiana’s abortion law, one of the strictest in the country, Mr. Landry said critics might leave the state.
That fighting spirit won him the support of staunch Republicans, who praised his willingness to challenge both Mr. Edwards and the Biden administration on coronavirus vaccination mandates. He also gained support for his sweeping promises to fight crime and prioritize parents’ education rights, as well as other positions that motivated the Republican base.
“Jeff was actually fighting for us,” Kim Cutforth, a 64-year-old retiree, said of Mr. Landry’s opposition to pandemic mandates as she awaited his appearance at a Baton restaurant Red Thursday. “I loved him for that.”
Other Republican candidates, she added, should “just leave – let Jeff be the governor.”
During his stop in the upstate Monroe, he brushed off criticism that many of his positions might be too extreme for the state.
Noting that Louisiana’s population has suffered one of the largest declines in the country, he added: “We have a structural problem here in the state, and I believe that on these issues I am the most qualified person . »