Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pre-2016 tour isn’t limited to early-primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. The wonky governor is leaving his mark in 2014’s hot spots, making stops the midterm battleground states where Republican victories could translate into a Republican Senate majority. And all along the way, Jindal is collecting chits he can cash in next year when many expect he will announce a presidential campaign.
But there’s one top Senate race where Jindal is conspicuously absent: in his home state of Louisiana.
Jindal has traveled to Arkansas, Iowa, and North Carolina to raise money for top Republican Senate recruits; made trips to Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York to support upstart GOP gubernatorial nominees; and thrown his backing behind Rep. James Lankford’s Senate bid in Oklahoma and Sen. Jerry Moran’s reelection campaign in Kansas, among others.
But Jindal has not endorsed, campaigned for, or donated a single dollar to Louisiana’s Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, the party’s leading candidate to take on vulnerable Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu in the state’s all-party primary in November. Even on social media, Jindal rarely discusses the Senate race. He has not mentioned Landrieu at all since May and has name-checked Cassidy exactly zero times in 2014.
Control of the Senate, which Jindal has made a central argument in several endorsements for other Republican candidates, could hinge on the results of the already close Cassidy-Landrieu battle. The current battle for Senate control is tight and if neither candidate in Louisiana receives 50 percent of the vote in November—neither has reached that mark in any public polling this year—the two will face off in a bloody runoff election in December. That could mean that senators will return to Washington in mid-November with no idea which party has won the majority.
Recent polling shows Landrieu and Cassidy in a tight race, with a second Republican candidate, Rob Maness, trailing far behind them. But Maness’s inclusion in the race only makes it more likely that the two candidates will head to a runoff. And both parties, but particularly Republicans, are stockpiling funds to ensure victory in that single-month campaign.
In such a tight race, any little bit helps. And several members of the Louisiana Republican delegation, most notably Sen. David Vitter, have been campaigning hard for Cassidy to put him over the top. Their presence on the campaign trail only makes Jindal’s absence more pronounced.
So why is Jindal steering clear?
Publicly, Jindal’s camp is noting that there are multiple Republicans still in the running, and Jindal spokesman Mike Reed says his boss doesn’t want to enter that fray.
“We are committed to defeating Mary Landrieu. She is a rubber stamp for President Obama’s agenda and that is bad for Louisiana and bad for the country,” Reed said in a statement. “What a lot of folks don’t realize, especially D.C. folks, is that Louisiana is different. While the rest of the country is engaged in general elections, we are still in our primaries. There are multiple Republicans running. We don’t see a need to weigh in between Republicans right now.”
Louisiana does not select Republican and Democratic nominees. Rather, the state participates in a “jungle primary” in which candidates of all parties compete together in a single primary on Election Day.
But not all Republicans have mirrored Jindal’s hands-off approach: The state Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, both of which typically avoid getting involved in intra-party fights, have backed Cassidy. Dozens of sitting Republican senators and congressmen have also gotten in on the act, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Cassidy’s campaign.
And Jindal himself has taken sides in the past. Two years ago, Jindal did weigh into at least two local contests between two Republicans. The governor endorsed current Attorney General Buddy Caldwell for reelection over former Rep. Joseph Cao and also took sides in a Republican-on-Republican contest for a state Board of Education seat.
At the same time, Republican observers say, Cassidy may not even want Jindal’s help.
As Landrieu’s campaign loves to remind reporters and voters, Jindal’s approval rating has dropped precipitously in recent years. A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed that just 34 percent of Louisianans approve of the job Jindal is doing, while 55 percent disapprove. That’s worse than Obama’s ratings in the same poll, where 39 percent of state residents approve of the job the president is doing and 56 percent disapprove. Another survey, from Louisiana-based Southern Media & Opinion Research back in May, showed Jindal with a 48 percent approval rating and a 51 percent disapproval rating.
“I think locally, if you’re looking at it, the best thing Bobby Jindal can do for Bill Cassidy is stay away. And that’s just because his approval ratings are so low. I mean, he’s really kind of become—I don’t know if toxic is the right word, but I mean, he’s not popular and his support I don’t think helps Cassidy,” an aide to a member of the Louisiana delegation said.
Cassidy’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
Appearances with the unloved gov could hurt Cassidy with swing voters as well—the very people that the Cassidy campaign is working to turn out in November, the aide argued.
“[If you look at] his record of supporting all these candidates in all these other states in competitive races, but he’s not involved in the race in his own home state? I mean, I don’t think it makes sense unless you really take into account that he’s just not that popular here. I’m sure he would like to help however possible, but I think there’s just been a calculation there that the best way to help is to not be present,” the aide said.
But, a longtime Louisiana Republican pollster added, Jindal’s numbers are still strong on the far right, “particularly social conservatives,” he said. “That’s already in the bag for Cassidy. So I guess he made the calculation that ‘I might hurt Cassidy if I venture out there and muddy up the middle.’ “
Jindal’s early presidential campaigning hasn’t helped much either. Jindal’s apparent fondness for fried butter at the Iowa State Fair and the crisp fall leaves of New Hampshire have become common jokes among Louisiana’s political class. A recent favorite, the aide told National Journal, was a joke Republican Rep. Vance McAllister told at the state’s annual Legis-Gator Luncheon in August.
McAllister told the Legis-Gator crowd that he had driven from Baton Rouge along Interstate 10 to the Lake Charles event that morning and had stopped outside a small Louisiana town called Iowa [pronounced eye-oh-way] and gotten out of his car, looking for Jindal. (Relations between McAllister and Jindal have been chilly since the governor called for his resignation this year.)
The vast majority of Jindal’s media appearances, press releases, and social media are nationally focused, devoted largely to combating the Obama administration and focusing in particular on the recent Ebola outbreak, Jindal’s opposition to Common Core, and the Affordable Care Act. He even wrote an op-ed criticizing New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s economic policies.
“I think nationally it would help him if it looked like he did something in the Senate race,” the pollster said. “But meanwhile, he’s been so busy running for president that his numbers in the state have declined so much … he doesn’t want to be doing something that’s seen as hurting the race.”
“I don’t have anything to substantiate it, but I would guess that Cassidy’s folks had asked him to kinda let them do their own thing,” the aide said.
So what would it take to get Jindal to jump in?
Reed, the governor’s spokesman, said Jindal could get more involved in the current Cassidy-Landrieu race if the Democrat begins to leap ahead in the polls. “If it looks like Mary Landrieu is getting close to winning this election without a runoff, we will engage to make sure she doesn’t,” he said.
Landrieu has tried to tie the unpopular Jindal to Cassidy, following a similar playbook to the one Republicans have used to tie her to Obama. Landrieu has repeatedly sought to tie Cassidy to the $700 million in higher education cuts the state has seen since Jindal took office. And, in a recent debate, Landrieu warned that Cassidy, like Jindal, would be just another Republican who says “no.”
In the same debate, when asked to rate Jindal on a scale of one to 10 in that same debate, Cassidy initially refused before giving him a seven—the same grade Landrieu gave to Obama.
Having Jindal on the trail alongside Cassidy could provide Landrieu’s campaign with a more solid foundation to tie the two together. It’s unclear whether Jindal will appear on the campaign trail with Cassidy during the runoff period, but Reed noted that the governor will support the Republican candidate. “We look forward to supporting the Republican in the runoff and defeating Mary Landrieu,” he said.
That last-minute support may not be worth the risk for the Cassidy, the GOP pollster said. “At this point, I’m so convinced that Mary can’t win that in my opinion it’s not worth the calculated risk. I mean Cassidy could do this on its own just on the sheer fact that Mary’s so unpopular with white voters.”
Asked if a Jindal appearance could drag Cassidy down, he added: “Yes, it could. It could. I don’t know that it will, but just the fact that it could would be one reason I would say, let’s not go there.”