When Roger Villere became the chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party 14 years ago, the only statewide GOP official was late Secretary of State Fox McKeithen. Today, of course, Gov. John Bel Edwards is now the only Democrat in statewide office, representing a sort of bookend for Villere in the unpaid position of chair.
Villere has become more public lately about his decision to not seek re-election to the top-tier party job. In response, an internal election to replace him has started to crackle and hiss. The Republican State Central Committee, an elected body, is expected to host an actual vote during the first quarter of 2018.
It should be a competitive race, especially for a post that hasn’t been vacant in nearly a decade and a half. Villere, who will eventually be turning his attention to his florist business in Metairie and possibly some consulting, is actually the longest serving state GOP chairman in the nation at this time.
Party leaders could go in several different directions to replace Villere. For example, they could take a cue from the Louisiana Democratic Party, which has Sen. Karen Carter Peterson of New Orleans as its chair. Placing a regional elected official into the position could have its benefits and some GOP faithfuls have been encouraging two legislators — Rep. Barry Ivey of Central and Sen. Beth Mizell of Bogalusa — to give some consideration to the job. Mizell, though, said on Monday evening that she has decided against pursuing the opportunity and wilontinue to focus on her Senate district.
There’s also a growing need for both mainline parties to be more nimble. The slow and steady proliferation of super PACs have created real competition for the attention of donors. Super PACs (political action committees) are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money, whereas the parties have yet to shed the limitations of giving caps.
The Louisiana Republican Party, in particular, has been very aggressive on this front. It filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court last month to challenge the ban on unlimited donations to political parties. The case could be resolved by the time the next chairman is elected, but the litigation could also become something the next chair will inherit.
Couple this need for a different approach to fundraising with the rapidly-changing media landscape and you can understand why some state central committee members favor fresh blood — meaning the kind of candidate who could work tirelessly, quickly adapt to changes and grow into the job. That’s the kind of banter that comes up when the likelihood of candidacies from either Scott McKnight of Baton Rouge or Derek Babcock of Denham Springs are discussed. Both ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature last cycle, but both have also remained involved in party politics.
Then you have the long-timers, those potential candidates who have been there and done that and have the scars of war to prove it. Scott Wilfong, a consultant from Baton Rouge, has been actively campaigning for the chairmanship; Charlie Buckels of Lafayette has said he’s interested; and Louis Gurvich of New Orleans is committed to throwing his hat in the ring.
Too many political ties, however, could be troublesome, especially for chairman candidates who run campaigns, manage politicians and raise money. Does the talent of the individual truly outweigh any potential conflicts? That could be the key question for those who want to install a political professional.
Whoever does get selected by the Republican State Central Committee will have to find a way to keep the party united. With the party’s registration continuing to grow — it was the fastest growing segment of Louisiana’s electorate in 2016 — a diverse number of opinions are coming into the fold.
For some diehards, it’s no longer a matter of whether you’re a conservative, it’s how conservative you are. There has even been some talk about heavyweight GOP donors targeting less-than-conservative legislators during the 2019 election cycle, in the hopes of putting conservatives of different stripes into those House and Senate seats.
It’s doubtful that Republican insiders really want to be victims of their own success. In fact, uniting the party’s different factions should be a talking point that surfaces for all of the likely candidates. Nonetheless, there will probably be just as much chatter about maintaining conservative values. Sometimes in politics being in the middle of the road means your roadkill.
Back on the Democratic side with Chairwoman Peterson, she may soon help her state party followers gain a little more national leverage. Next week Peterson will be running for the Democratic National Committee’s vice chairmanship of civic engagement and voter participation. Unlike Villere, though, Peterson doesn’t seem to have any plans to not seek re-election as chairwoman.
That will leave it up to Republicans to anoint new party leadership first and it could be a vision-shifting event. Or it could be a train wreck. This is Louisiana politics, after all.