Four years ago after coming within a few percentage points of being elected the nation's first Indian-American governor, conservative Louisiana Congressman Bobby Jindal is well positioned to make it all the way this fall.
Even before Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, his previous opponent, opted out of a reelection bid, her popularity buffeted by what many saw as a dismal performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the painfully slow recovery since, polls showed Republican Jindal, 36, with a commanding lead in a do-over. And with weeks to go before the October 20 primary, and no big-name Democrat in the race New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and former U.S. Senator John Breaux both stepped aside after toying with the idea of running many here are betting that Jindal will get the 50%-plus-one majority he needs to avoid a November runoff.
The only serious obstacle could be the same thing that helped Blanco edge out her upstart opponent in 2003 the impression that Jindal is an overachieving bureaucrat who has little empathy for the poor in a largely poor state. A Rhodes scholar whose parents arrived in the U.S. from India just months before he was born, Jindal was selected to run the state's Department of Health and Hospitals by Blanco's predecessor, two-term Republican Mike Foster, at the ripe old age of 24. The Baton Rouge native guided the bloated department through a rough period of cutbacks, both in jobs and reimbursements to health care providers; that work led to a stint as director of a federal Medicare commission at 27 and head of the Louisiana State University system a year later. At 30, he was serving as an undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and by 33, a year after his defeat, he won the U.S. House seat being vacated by G.O.P. Senator David Vitter and coasted to reelection in 2006.
Blanco used the image of Jindal as a cold-hearted numbers cruncher to her advantage with ads that many say turned the tide in the last election, and it has surfaced again in an emotionally charged spot produced by one of Jindal's challengers, Democrat Walter Boasso. In the ad, a middle-aged woman named Lynn McNiece, in a calm voice, barely concealing her grief and rage, tells of her mentally disabled brother who was evicted from a nursing home during Jindal's tenure at the state health department. "Bobby Jindal threw my brother out on the street, and no one bothered to even call me," she says. "Bobby Jindal has no heart."
The ad put the Jindal campaign on the defensive for the first time in a race that a few months earlier seemed his for the taking. "It's the same charge that Jindal doesn't really care about people," says Ed Renwick, a professor of political science at Loyola University in New Orleans . "The problem [in 2003] was, he never defended himself. Now, obviously, he's going to change that." Jindal has responded with ads of his own, attacking his opponents as part of the "corrupt crowd" even though none of the other major candidates has been tainted by scandal and touting his conservative bona fides. He's released a slew of position papers on topics ranging from health care to crime, and promised to reform Louisiana's ethically challenged political system a perennial campaign theme that has had limited success among past reform candidates.
Jindal is up against three viable contenders, including Boasso, a portly one-term state senator from hurricane-ravaged St. Bernard Parish who has a compelling backstory of his own: he started his successful shipping-tank-cleaning business, Boasso America, with little more than "a box of Tide and a garden hose," as he likes to tell people. Last April, after state Republican party leadership endorsed Jindal and when it became clear that Breaux was out of the race, Boasso switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat, and he has spent the ensuing weeks burnishing his regular-guy image. Public service commissioner and former state senator Foster Campbell is the more traditional Louisiana Democrat, proud to wear the populist label. But he's little known outside his North Louisiana stronghold, where Jindal's appeals to Christian conservatives have cut into Campbell's natural base. Rounding out the field of major candidates is New Orleans businessman John Georges, who is running as an Independent.
A Catholic convert who grew up in a Hindu household, Jindal has made his name by aligning himself with the cultural conservative wing of the Republican Party, fiercely opposing stem cell research and abortion while favoring the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools. The strategy has helped his standing among the state's conservative Christian voters, and helped him overcome the twin liabilities (in some circles) of intellectualism and ethnicity traits that arouse suspicion in some of Louisiana's rural stretches, and that many say also helped tip the scales against him in 2003. He has mostly toed the party line in his short time in Congress, even voting as critics never tire of pointing out against a spending bill earlier this year that would have provided billions in hurricane recovery aid to Louisiana, but came with a Democratic amendment calling for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Astonishingly, until the first of the race's three debates last week, the issue of the slow recovery of New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana has been largely absent from the campaign. Nagin, who endorsed Jindal the last go-round, said recently that he was waiting for a sign before throwing his support behind a candidate. "I've talked to just about all of them," he said. "I keep saying I'm looking to see what the commitment of the candidates are to the recovery of South Louisiana. And they keep dancing around it. And as long as they continue to dance, I'm going to dance."
It's hard to say whether Nagin's endorsement, or anyone else's, will carry much weight with African-American voters, who make up about 30% of the electorate and are key to Democratic victories in statewide races. With many from New Orleans still living outside the city or even the state the traditional get-out-the-vote drives will be harder to organize.
But the greatest unknown is the degree to which voter apathy will affect the race. With Vitter recently shamed by revelations that he had previously paid prostitutes for sex, U.S. Congressman William Jefferson facing trial for corruption in January, and Nagin and Blanco considered by many to be irrelevant at best and outright failures at worst, voters may have decided that the entire electoral process is pointless. "I would contend that we're headed for a historically low turnout, which is the opposite of what we would have expected in Louisiana in 2007," says Shreveport demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher. "I think one of two things is happening: Either people are so beat up and turned off that they just don't care. Or they're just biding their time. They know exactly what they're going to do. They're going to turn out, in normal numbers at least, and vote against most of the incumbents."
Low turnout could help Jindal by giving his social conservative base a bigger share of the vote. But anti-incumbent sentiment could cost him: He began the race with a lead that made him seem like the incumbent right out of the gate. There's still time for one of the candidates to land a deadly blow or a bombshell to land; more likely, in a race that seems cautious by Louisiana standards, any surprises will come from the voters themselves.