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Democrat Shawn Wilson making the governor’s runoff isn’t necessarily a lock

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Democrat Shawn Wilson making the governor’s runoff isn’t necessarily a lock

Sep 18, 2023 | 3:38 pm ET
By Greg LaRose
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Democrat Shawn Wilson making the governor’s runoff isn’t necessarily a lock
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Gubernatorial candidate and former State Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson answers questions April 26, 2023, at the PAR forum held at the Crowne Plaza in Baton Rouge. (Matthew Perschall for Louisiana Illuminator)

You can’t put it much more bluntly than independent Hunter Lundy did at Friday’s televised governor’s debate. 

“Shawn Wilson cannot win this race. He has zero chance of winning the race,” Lundy said, trying to position himself as an alternative to the party favorites in next month’s election.  

A look at the Republican-heavy field for Louisiana governor might lead one to support Lundy’s take on the situation for the top Democrat in the race. But that would be a hasty assumption based on multiple considerations unique to this election.

To be certain, the five GOP candidates will cannibalize their party’s electorate to some extent, and the conservative Lundy should also carve into the votes frontrunner Jeff Landry wants to grab. Some of these candidates also appeal to right-leaning moderate voters who gelled behind Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2015 and, to a lesser extent, in 2019. 

Edwards promoted his anti-abortion views in his campaign, and his West Point pedigree certainly added to his appeal for conservative voters. Plus, it didn’t hurt that former U.S. Sen. David Vitter was a wildly unpopular candidate, and businessman Eddie Rispone offered little beyond his firm grip on then-President Donald Trump’s coattails.

In his most recent debate appearance, Wilson’s views on abortion got a bit muddled. Still, there’s little question that he ultimately lands well left of the governor on the issue. There are probably more Republicans who support abortion access than they care to admit, but it’s unlikely there are enough to give Wilson a noticeable boost with swing voters.

Another strike against Wilson is his resume. As much as he might want to run on his reputation as the state’s transportation secretary for more than seven years, not even the world’s most savvy PR professionals could spin that gig into a strength for his campaign. With so many inadequate roadways and bridges, that pig just won’t even sit still for lipstick. It would take generational progress — think back to when they first built bridges over the Mississippi River — for an infrastructure official to build the clout needed to win a statewide elected office.

Also working against Wilson is the lack of Democrats in down-ballot races. In the legislature, most races have no Democrats in the field, and there are very few contests for party members to decide in blue strongholds.

Take Orleans Parish, for example, which can take a huge chunk of the credit for putting Edwards back in office four years ago. Ten incumbent Democrats in the New Orleans delegation from the Louisiana House and Senate are unopposed, and three out of four open judgeships drew just one unopposed candidate. Two home rule charter amendments on the Oct. 14 ballot aren’t expected to see much organized opposition or support, and a school tax renewal shouldn’t see much resistance.

All that adds up to very little motivation for Orleans voters to galvanize behind Wilson, at least not until the runoff when their support is absolutely necessary for him to have any hope of contention.

Not helping matters any for Wilson is the ongoing rift between Louisiana Democratic Party leadership and its more progressive membership. Apathy has firmly set in among the rank and file as chair Katie Bernhardt has focused largely on rebuilding trust among donors after her predecessor, Karen Carter Peterson, absconded with $144,000 in party funds to support her gambling addiction. 

Bernhardt’s own brief flirtation with a run for governor has also contributed to the Democratic disarray. It only served to give the state party’s official endorsement of Wilson in the governor’s race the feeling of an unwanted hand-me-down.

However, it’s unwise to write off Wilson’s chances of making the runoff at this point. While perhaps not to the extent of their hatred for Vitter, there are plenty of Republicans who simply don’t like Landry. If their spite is strong enough to go against the wishes of Louisiana’s GOP ruling class, there just might be a glimmer of hope for the top Democrat.