No longer a long-shot candidate

by Mike Stagg

Lafayette carries Susan Theall into a runoff with Candyce Perret.

Candyce Gagnard Perret and Susan Theall, pictured here from their Saturday victory parties, will face off in the April 29 runoff.

[Editor's Note: The paragraph dealing with the 27th JDC challenge to Vanessa Anseman's candidacy has been edited to reflect that it is some Anseman supporters who suspect Perret was behind the challenge. We regret any confusion the earlier version might have caused.]

Susan Theall’s under-funded campaign found traction in Lafayette Parish in the race for a seat on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, and her win here Saturday propelled her into the April 29 runoff with Candyce Gagnard Perret.

Voter turnout in the district was an abysmal 9.9 percent. Only 40,506 of the 410,377 voters registered in the eight-parish district made it to the polls. Perret carried seven of the eight parishes, but that was not enough to offset Theall’s strong showing in Lafayette.

Theall led the field in Lafayette with 6,644 votes (46 percent), followed by a close race for second and third place finishes between Perret, 4,181 votes (29 percent), and Vanessa Waguespack Anseman, 3,515 votes (25 percent). Turnout in Lafayette Parish was 9.4 percent, according to the Secretary of State’s website.

Those results are nothing short of stunning, considering Perret’s money advantage and the standing of the Perret family name going into the campaign.

District wide totals showed Perret leading with 41 percent, followed by Theall’s 37 percent and Anseman’s 22 percent.

UL political science professor and IND contributor Dr. Pearson Cross says the fact that Perret managed to win seven of the eight parishes in the district is testimony to the money advantage she had and the power of television advertising.

“Voters in parishes away from Lafayette showed the effect of her money advantage,” Cross explains. “Basically, voters in areas away from Lafayette would be considered lower information voters in a race like this where there’s a short campaign and the candidates aren’t well known.”

Cross also says it appears that Perret paid no cost for avoiding public forums with the other candidates. “Other candidates have done that in other races in the past, and voters do not appear to hold that against them,” Cross continues. “Forums appeal to those candidates who need help. Those who don’t need the help, tend not to participate.”

“Perret’s campaign was able to use its fundraising advantage to offset the negative stories that came out about her,” Cross continues, noting that all three candidates had critical stories reported about them, but “certainly Perret had more negative press to deal with than the others.”

Cross thinks Theall’s prior campaigns — she is a former district judge in the 15th JDC — worked to her benefit in this low-turnout election.

“She’s run for office before, and when you look at the vote totals, I’d say that the votes Theall received came from people with whom she’s probably had direct contact with either in this campaign or in her three previous runs,” Cross says.

“Anseman was undercut by the questions about her eligibility and she could not overcome that,” Cross believes.

Perret carried Acadia Parish, where voter turnout was driven up by the special election to fill the unexpired term of District 42 state Rep. Jack Montoucet. Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed Montoucet to head the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Republicans John Stefanski and Jay Suire faced off in that election with Stefanski winning the seat. Turnout in that race was 26.4 percent. Turnout for the judicial race was 20.2 percent in Acadia Parish, by far the highest in the district.

By contrast, turnout among African American voters in Lafayette was likely below 5 percent.

Lafayette attorney and political adviser Lester Gauthier has for years conducted a running analysis of turnout in 11 Lafayette precincts that have the highest percentage of African American voters. Those precincts center on the northside of the city of Lafayette and include polling places at the Domingue Center and the Sheriff’s Training Center on North St. Antoine Street.

“In those precincts, Perret narrowly won, but turnout there was only 4.13 percent,” Gauthier says. “There were 475 votes cast from a total of 11,479 registered voters in those precincts.”

Perret got 235 (49.5 percent) of the votes; Theall 200 (42 percent); and, Anseman got 40 votes (8.4 percent).

Perret had the backing of State Sen. Gerald Boudreaux, his brother, Lafayette City-Parish Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux, and former LCG Councilman Chris Williams.

Theall graduated from Northside High School and, as Cross mentions, had campaigned on the northside in earlier races, nearly offsetting whatever advantage Perret’s high-profile endorsements brought her.

Perret’s campaign continued its prodigious fundraising in the final weeks of the primary campaign. Special reports filed by her campaign following the end of the final reporting period before the vote Saturday showed her campaign raised $89,000 between March 6 and the election. The Perret campaign had $149,351 on hand on March 5, giving her $238,351 to spend during the sprint to the primary.

During that same period between March 5 and the primary, Theall raised $11,563. Her March 5 report showed her campaign had $36,985 on hand at that time.

Anseman raised $6,000 during the final stretch. She reported spending $2,400 on election day, primarily on radio and Facebook advertising, plus some pay for campaign workers.

Candidates are not required to file the Election Day spending reports until April 4. They are required to file their final primary campaign expenditure reports on April 19.

Those April 19 reports will also contain the money Perret and Theall have raised and spent on the runoff election.

Both Cross and Gauthier expect turnout in Lafayette in the April 29 runoff to be higher as the Lafayette Parish Public School System will have a 1/2-cent sales tax increase on the ballot. Combine that with no high-profile local races in Acadia, where Perret led, and Cross sees a tight runoff race.

Higher turnout in Lafayette combined with lower turnout in Acadia and continued low turnout in the other parishes sets the stage for Lafayette Parish to be the pivotal battleground in the runoff contest.

It is difficult to imagine most Anseman voters breaking toward Perret in the runoff. Vanessa Anseman’s husband Skeet is a partner in the Lafayette office of Jones Walker, the firm that got medical billings for Perret’s husband’s company, Louisiana Specialty Institute, tossed in a 15th JDC court case in 2013. Sources tell The IND that Dr. Norman Anseman, Skeet’s father, is one of at least two medical doctors interviewed as witnesses by the FBI in the ongoing probe into LSI’s business practices. Dr. Anseman, who is now retired, once worked in one of the Perret health care businesses.

Some Anseman supporters suspect that the Perret camp was behind the 27th JDC challenge to Vanessa’s candidacy in Opelousas. The Ansemans are not sure who was behind it, just that it proved costly to the campaign. The hearing and ruling on the challenge occurred March 13, the second day of early voting. (Theall sent a letter to District Attorney Keith Stutes in Lafayette, but Stutes did not challenge Anseman’s eligibility in court.)

The potential shift in the turnout map and the antipathy between the Anseman camp and the Perrets appear to give Theall a real shot at winning the race, something no one figured remotely possible when the campaign began in January. Still, it’s a long way to April 29 in what has already been one of the most unusual judicial campaigns in a state with an extraordinarily long record of unusual political races.