Safe and Sound?

by Jeremy Alford

Barring any surprises, Jay Dardenne and John Kennedy seem like sure-things for re-election this fall, and ' surprisingly ' their fates may be intertwined.

They use the same political operative and vote alike on fiscal issues but just can't seem to get on the same page when it comes to party affiliation. Despite this ideological difference, Jay Dardenne and John Kennedy have more in common than you might think. For starters, Dardenne, the Republican secretary of state, and Kennedy, the Democratic treasurer, are looking like shoo-ins for re-election. Neither faces any real opposition yet, and they're flush with cash and polling strong. But it's in the next election cycle, in the race for the U.S. Senate, where their two fates could truly collide.

In an election year where gubernatorial politics have trumped all else thus far, contests further down the ballot have received less scrutiny as lawmakers shoulder the burden of spending surplus billions during the ongoing session. But the intensity is picking up for the statewide incumbents, most of which are Democrats. The field building against Attorney General Charles Foti, for instance, is building, and prosecutors keep reminding voters about the corruption charges swirling around embattled Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom.

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, coming off his defeat in the New Orleans mayoral race, will be facing off against the Christian-right vote in the form of state Rep. Gary Beard, a Baton Rouge Republican who has built a legislative record on all the right GOP issues. Even Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, the other statewide GOP officeholder alongside Dardenne, could be ripe for the picking, especially since he was elected on a low-turnout special ballot last year. Any way you cut it, most of these officials will likely have to put up a fight to maintain ground.

Then there are Dardenne and Kennedy, who have managed to ascend above the fray ' for now.

For his part, Dardenne cultivated an image of torch-bearer on ethics reform during his time in the state Senate, having come to the secretary of state post through last year's special election. He has placed a newfound emphasis on the cultural side of the office, eliminating museum fees and adding new exhibits, which could open up a new base of Democrats for the Baton Rouge conservative. From a practical standpoint, he is also making friends with election commissioners and other vote-bosses through policy platforms on the election side of the office.

The formula is a cozy one for the state GOP, which is beginning to recognize the value of Dardenne's stock. In fact, he has even caught the glare of national Republicans looking to next year's Senate race. "I think Jay's seat is a safe seat for us," says James Quinn, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party. "And part of that is the great job he has already done with the office. He's a good fund raiser. He's in touch with the party, and he is very alert to what is going on. I would be surprised if anyone even tries to run against him."

On the surface, Democrats don't buy the line, but they can't offer up the political kryptonite either. Danny Ford, executive director of the state Democratic Party, says it's too early in the race to call a winner, and a big name could oppose Dardenne in the fall. "We're still talking to a variety of individuals, but we're not prepared to release any names. It's a whole different ball game from the last election. The dynamics of the race will be different, and turnout will be higher."

Kennedy is running for re-election as well, but he's presenting voters with a different candidate than they saw four years ago. During his most recent term, Kennedy has become the state's unofficial watchdog, taking his own party's governor to task on a regular basis over fiscal matters. He was heavily recruited to run for governor this year, but opted out. The pundits predict and Kennedy doesn't deny a potential run for the U.S. Senate next year against incumbent Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat. As all of this has bubbled to the surface, Kennedy has also publicly flirted with switching parties, but remains a Democrat thus far for the upcoming ballot.

Ford says there haven't been any efforts to appease Kennedy's ideology concerns, and the party plans to back him "100 percent" for re-election. While there's very little face-to-face, the party does keep in contact with staff. "Kennedy is running again, and we are behind him," Ford says. "The treasurer is a Democrat and a member of our party. He's an advocate of good government, and we're proud to have him as part of the team."

Quinn hasn't had any direct conversations with Kennedy about party affiliations, either, but admits a switch could be on the horizon. Maybe that's why he couldn't offer up a single name of a Republican willing to step in the ring against Kennedy in coming months. "We've all heard the same rumors and read the same stories," Quinn says. "I think John will ultimately do what is right for him. I think he has considered it, and he is keeping his options open."

If Kennedy has indeed considered changing his D to R, then it has to give him pause that national Republicans are eyeing Dardenne to run against Landrieu next year. So, while they may be safe this year, the two fiscal conservatives could be eye-to-eye in 2008. "Mary Landrieu is the top targeted Democrat next year, and there is going to be a lot of interest in that race," Ford says. "They all know Jay by reputation and, naturally, he has been included in those discussions. But we still have a year to go, and anything could happen."