Other than the fact that he smiles more, it’s tempting to compare Stephen Waguespack, the newest entrant in the ever-shifting race for Louisiana governor, to Dick Cheney.
In 2000, Cheney set about to find then-candidate George W. Bush a suitable running mate and wound up taking the job himself.
Waguespack — in his now-former role as president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry — recently interviewed the four announced Republican contenders on stage at LABI’s annual lunch, and exactly one week later, announced his own candidacy.
That's gotta smart. Clearly he wasn’t too impressed with his now-rivals, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Attorney General Jeff Landry, state Rep. Richard Nelson and state Treasurer John Schroder.
Just as clearly, Landry’s attempt to consolidate conservatives behind his social issues-fueled candidacy — he’s already got the state GOP endorsement, and he’s expected to soon get a nod from former President Donald Trump — hasn’t stemmed the palpable panic among some of Louisiana’s major business interests over the prospect of a Governor Landry.
While Waguespack’s announcement may invoke memories of Cheney’s power grab, his audacious maneuver appears directly linked to a decision by another politician, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves.
Ever since U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy rejected pleas that they try to block Landry, many hopes have centered on Graves, even though his quick rise in Congress made a run unlikely. He finally bowed out last week, just as talk of a Waguespack candidacy was building, and his statement left little doubt of coordination.
“In the coming days, the field for governor will brighten. And Louisiana will have a generational opportunity to write America’s greatest comeback story,” Graves wrote, suggesting he too found the Republicans who’ve been running for months wanting.
But if Waguespack was hoping to step right into the lane reserved for Graves, or Cassidy, or Kennedy, his immediate challenge is that he’s not already one of the big dogs in state politics.
The theory behind the push to attract a sitting member of Congress into the race was that each might draw votes from independents and even some Democrats as well as Republicans. It’s not at all clear that Waguespack would have the same appeal.
In fact, while he’s a household name among political insiders, he doesn’t have much of a public profile beyond the Capitol. That means it will be easy for opponents to tag him with the unpopular policies of the governor he served before joining LABI, Bobby Jindal — criticisms Democrats are already voicing.
Then there are LABI’s priorities, the kind of corporate-friendly low tax-and-regulation policies that don’t always play well among the broader electorate. In fact, one of the takeaways from Waguespack’s questioning of his now-rivals was their willingness to distance themselves from big-business orthodoxy.
Waguespack does enter the race with a big advantage, of course, and it’s that there remains a search — in some corners, a desperate one — to find a less-divisive alternative to Landry who can take him on. Based on his past statements, Waguespack is unlikely to go after librarians and transgender kids, and more likely to focus on making the state’s legal climate more business-friendly and providing incentives to draw major industries to Louisiana.
Still, some high profile business conservatives in the state appear to have made their peace with Landry. Indeed, just as Waguespack was prepared to announce, two of the most prominent, banker Joe Canizaro and shipbuilding tycoon Boysie Bollinger, endorsed the A.G.
Would that have happened had Graves, not Waguespack, been the one declaring his candidacy? Hard to imagine, but now we’ll never know.
All we do know after the week’s drama is that Landry remains the Republican to beat, and that the list of GOP rivals who think they can just got longer.