Louisiana’s showing up a lot on cable TV these days. There’s the History Channel’s Swamp People, a hit series documenting the lives of Cajun alligator hunters in the swamps of coastal Louisiana. Over on A&E, you can watch Duck Dynasty, which features a self-professed family of rednecks who turned their northeast Louisiana-based duck call business into a multi-million dollar company. Tune into Country Music Television to catch one of three Louisiana-themed shows: Bayou Billionaires, My Big Redneck Vacation, and CMT’s newest program, Swamp Pawn, which is not to be confused with History’s Cajun Pawn Stars, a creole-flavored spinoff of the popular parent series. Sons of Guns, filmed in Baton Rouge, is the Discovery Channel’s second Louisiana show after the now-cancelled Ragin Cajuns. And this spring, A&E has a new reality series, The Governor’s Wife, which focuses on the third (much younger) wife of Louisiana’s 85-year-old convicted ex-governor Edwin Edwards.
Jay Dardenne, a Republican who may try to take Democrat Mary Landrieu’s Senate seat next year, probably wouldn’t take credit for all of the recent attention Louisiana’s been getting, but he might as well. About a decade ago, Dardenne, then a state senator, co-authored a motion picture tax credit, providing the incentive for Hollywood and the TV networks to film in Bayou State. In his current position as lieutenant governor, he oversees the state’s Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism—which means Dardenne is Louisiana’s chief salesman. And those popular TV programs have been a great sales aid.
“I’ve worked very closely with the Swamp People guys and the Duck Dynasty folks in promoting Louisiana,” the 59-year-old Dardenne tells me in a phone interview. “It’s been beneficial to us from a tourism standpoint because people are fascinated by what they’re seeing on their shows and people are interested in authenticity. And we have a lot of authenticity in Louisiana. As I tell people all the time, you can’t stereotype everybody in Louisiana based on Uncle Si [on Duck Dynasty] or Troy Landry on Swamp People, but they are authentic, real people from Louisiana.”
Dardenne loves Louisiana. So much so, in fact, that it makes it difficult to believe he’d ever want to leave. But a PPP poll released last month showed him just three points behind Senator Landrieu, who is up for reelection in 2014. For a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state, Landrieu is a scrappy fighter with a familiar name, and knocking her off could be a deceptively tough task for the GOP. Dardenne’s strong showing in the poll (43 percent said they would vote for him against Landrieu’s 46 percent) has led the lifelong Baton Rouge resident to “ponder” moving to Washington.
“You can’t help but ponder it when you see some numbers like that and it gets people talking and wanting to know what you may be interested in doing,” Dardenne recently told Roll Call. “I guess ‘pondering’ is the best word—at least for right now.”
That set off a flurry of speculation about Dardenne’s political future in Louisiana. Many had thought Dardenne was looking instead at running for governor in 2015. “I had assumed all along that he has decided he was going to run for governor,” says Bob Mann, a professer at LSU and a former Democratic operative who is friendly with Dardenne. “This poll has given him some pause.”
Dardenne himself still says he’s more likely to run for governor.
“People are more ambitious for me than I am for myself,” he tells me. “I don’t have a particular timeline, but my main focus is on the 2015 governor’s race. That’s what I’ve anticipated looking at. This [Senate race] has kind of been a recent occurrence.”
His career in politics started at LSU, where Dardenne was student body president in the 1970’s. Like most Louisianans at the time, he initially registered as a Democratic voter. But in 1974, Dardenne volunteered on the successful congressional campaign of Republican Henson Moore. Moore was just the second Republican to serve in the House of Representatives from Louisiana since Reconstruction. “He and I were in the same fraternity at LSU, and I got to know him and really admire him and helped in his campaign,” Dardenne says. “And that’s what really prompted me to become a Republican, long before I sought any office. So I’ve been a Republican, in essence, most of my adult life.”
In the late 1980’s, Dardenne ran for office himself, serving on the Baton Rouge metropolitan council. In 1992, he was elected to the state senate from East Baton Rouge parish. There, he says, he started “lobbing grenades” during the fourth and final administration of crooked governor Edwin Edwards (who defeated neo-Nazi David Duke in a race that featured pro-Edwards bumper stickers reading, “Vote for the Crook—It’s Important”). Mann says Dardenne earned a reputation as one of the “good government” reformers who tried—unsuccessfully, at first—to clean up the decades of back-slapping corruption that defined the Democratic-dominated politics in Baton Rouge.
“This has been a state that has been challenged in the past with political intrigue,” Dardenne says.
Over the next decade and a half, Dardenne served in the state senate under both Democratic governors (Edwards and Kathleen Blanco) and Republican (Mike Foster). His reform efforts, much more successful under the administrations after Edwards’s, and his judicious temperament tagged him as a “moderate Republican,” though he calls himself a fiscal and social conservative. He’s the kind of Republican, Mann says, who can win over independents and the state’s dwindling population of Democrats, too.
“Jay Dardenne is a political figure who transcends political parties,” says Chris Wilson, Dardenne’s longtime pollster.
In 2005, the five-term secretary of state died in office, and Governor Blanco appointed a temporary successor. In 2006, Dardenne ran to fill out the remainder of the term and won, winning reelection just a year later in the same 2007 general election that saw Bobby Jindal elected governor. Three years later, the Democratic lieutenant governor Mitch Landrieu (Mary’s brother) won the race for mayor of New Orleans, so Jindal appointed a temporary successor, Democrat-turned-Republican Scott Angelle, while Dardenne announced his intention to run in the October 2010 special election for the seat. The situation was a replay of his secretary of state electoral story: he won the special election and then won a full term a year later. All told, Dardenne has won four statewide elections in five years. It’s no wonder some Republicans are “ambitious” for him.
Dardenne occupies an interesting place in Louisiana politics. When he was first elected secretary of state in 2006, he was the first Jewish statewide officeholder since Judah P. Benjamin, a U.S. senator until Louisiana seceded in 1861. (Benjamin later served as the Confederate States’s attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state.) He doesn’t dwell on his religion or ethnicity, though, noting Louisiana has always been a diverse “human gumbo.” It’s a state, after all, that elected the nation’s first Asian Indian governor despite the fact that Indian Americans make up less than half a percent of Louisiana’s population.
So will Dardenne ultimately try to succeed Jindal and become Louisiana’s first Jewish governor? Republican senator David Vitter is reportedly interested in returning to Louisiana to run for the office himself. Vitter is a conservative and popular with the party’s right wing, which in another state might keep Dardenne out. But Louisiana’s unique system means Republicans, Democrats, and independents all run together in an open primary. If no candidate wins 50 percent, as is often the case, the top two vote getters proceed to a runoff. As the GOP becomes more dominant in Louisiana, there’s more incentive for Republican candidates to jump in and try to make it to the runoff. In an open primary with Vitter and a weak Democrat, Dardenne could have a chance to win the vast middle.
But going up against one of Louisiana’s most powerful Republicans may not be that attractive to Dardenne, who’s used to winning elections. That’s likely another reason he’s looking at next year’s Senate race against Mary Landrieu with newfound interest. Among his other potential primary opponents are several of Louisiana’s House members including John Fleming and Bill Cassidy, who represents the district around Dardenne’s own Baton Rouge. But if Dardenne can make it to a runoff against Landrieu, there’s reason to believe he could knock off the senior red-state Democrat. The depopulation of New Orleans, the Democratic epicenter in Louisiana, makes winning statewide as a Democrat harder than ever. And without Barack Obama on the ballot, as he was in 2008, Landrieu won’t necessarily have a turnout advantage in a runoff.
“If he were to get into the [Senate] race, he would instantly be the frontrunner,” says Wilson.
A Landrieu challenge could be a plum opportunity for Dardenne—if that’s what he wants.
“I love being in Louisiana,” he says. “I love the job I have right now promoting the state and creating jobs within an industry that has really been a job creator for the state because Louisiana is such an interesting and fascinating state.”