Louisiana voters head to the polls on Saturday to vote in the state’s gubernatorial primary race, a contest that will likely be one of the best pickup opportunities for Republicans after eight years of Democratic control and during one of the most watched races in an off-year election cycle.
The field of at least 14 candidates vying to replace the term-limited Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) is battling in the state’s “jungle primary” to either win 50% or more of the vote in order to win the primary. If no candidate hits 50%, the top two candidates, irrespective of party, in the race will move on to the general election on Nov. 18.
Top candidates in the race include state GOP Attorney General Jeff Landry, independent attorney Hunter Lundy, state GOP Treasurer John Schroder, former Democratic state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, former business leader and Republican Stephen Waguespack, and state GOP Sen. Sharon Hewitt.
But political experts point to Landry and Wilson as the candidates with the best shot of winning the top two places in the primary and moving on to the November runoff. “You’re going to have a Republican governor. And it’s going to be Jeff Landry,” Lionel Rainey III, a Republican strategist based out of Louisiana, told the Washington Examiner. “Jeff has led in every poll since the beginning of this race and only increased his margins. He has outspent his opponents, probably two to one combined. He went into the race with the highest name ID, and as the race has progressed, his positives have increased and his negatives have gone down.”
Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said it’s likely that no candidate will emerge as the winner in the Saturday primary. “Shawn Wilson has been pulling in the high 20s [and] will probably do better than that in the actual first round, as he’s the most prominent Democrat,” Cross said. “But at this point, it appears that Jeff Landry has a commanding lead in name recognition, in money, in advertisement, and likely in votes. That said, it’s almost certainly going to go into a runoff.”
A September poll conducted by Gray Media and Mason-Dixon Polling Strategy showed Landry winning a hypothetical primary race at 40% while Wilson, the Democrat, came in at second place at 24%. In a hypothetical runoff race, Landry wins at 52% of the vote compared to Wilson’s 39%. Landry also has the highest favorability score of the field at 46%, while Wilson has a 28% favorability rating.
In May, former President Donald Trump endorsed Landry, who had already received the backing of the state GOP before any other Republican rivals had jumped into the race. “I am endorsing your Attorney General Jeff Landry for Governor. He has been a fantastic Attorney General. He wants to stop crime. He loves the people of Louisiana just like I do,” Trump said in a video message with Landry.
Trump’s endorsement may have boosted Landry’s support given the former president won Louisiana during the 2020 election with 58.5% of the vote and during the 2016 election with 58.1% of the vote. “His endorsement of Jeff [Landry] helped solidify a significant portion of the Republican base in the state of Louisiana,” Rainey said about Trump. “For both cycles, we were one of the highest voting Trump states in America. And so there’s obviously been big support for President Trump here, and by President Trump endorsing Jeff Landry, it helped solidify with those voters that yes, Jeff is their candidate of choice.”
Landry is besting competitors not just in polling but in fundraising efforts. Landry’s campaign announced he had $9 million cash on hand in July and raised $4.5 million from April 8 to July 7. “I am incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support from people across our State. Louisiana deserves a government as good as her people,” Landry said at the time. “With your continued support we will finally have safer communities, a great education system, and bring jobs and talent back home.” As of last month, Landry has roughly $6.7 million on hand far above all his competitors with Schroder at $1.68 million, Waguespack at $1.27 million, and Lundy at $1.19 million.
Cross, the political scientist, compared this year’s gubernatorial races to 1995 and 1999 contests featuring a white Republican running against a black Democrat. “A Republican Mike Foster faced first a black state Rep. Cleo Fields [in 1995], and then in the ’99 race, he faced a black congressman, William Jefferson. And in both of those races, he won handily by about a two-to-one margin,” Cross said. “And Louisiana has done nothing to get more Republican in the meantime. It’s unclear to what extent race is going to be a factor in any potential runoff.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but looking at what happened in ’95 and ’99, I think it’s going to be, in the runoff, it’s going to be a two-to-one for Landry unless there were some really shocking and well-supported allegations that got traction,” Cross added about Landry facing off against Wilson, a black Democrat.
The September poll from Gray Media and Mason-Dixon Polling Strategy also showed that in a hypothetical runoff, Landry received 70% of the white vote and 11% of the black vote in comparison to Wilson, who received 74% of the black vote and 24% of the white vote.
John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster and consultant, pointed to low early-voting turnout as a sign of Democratic weakness in the primary. “It has been a low-wattage governor’s race. Voters aren’t really, really excited about this election cycle, as was evidenced by the early voting turnout being about seven to 8% lower than it was four years ago,” Couvillon told the Washington Examiner. “One thing that is interesting is black turnout has been down relative to what it was four years ago. And typically in Louisiana, early voting is tilted, more Democratic.”
The Associated Press reports that at least 345,957 voters have cast ballots before Election Day, with 45% cast by Republicans, 40% by Democrats, and 15% by members of other parties. The early voting turnout doesn’t bode well for Wilson, Couvillon said, because “that means that you’re likely to have an even more proportionately Republican Election Day vote.”
Jay Connaughton, a Republican strategist, Landry adviser, and founder of the political ad agency Innovative Politics, touted Landry’s “energy” as one of the reasons he’s resonated with Louisianians, but he also doubted that Wilson could prevail in a runoff.
“Shawn Wilson has a very strong, Democratic base that has stuck with him consistently since his announcement. His campaign, while relatively quiet, will be enough to put him in a solid second-place position, but it won’t be enough for (him) to win in November,” Connaughton said.
Republicans currently have supermajorities in the state Senate and House as of March this year. A gubernatorial win from Landry would give the party control over state policymaking and could lead to more GOP legislative priorities. Landry could attempt to pass legislation that Edwards has previously vetoed including legislation that would require K-12 schools to send exemption information in vaccine requirement communication.
“He’s going to have the opportunity to institute real structural reform within the state,” said Rainey about a possible Landry win. “Some may not be as sexy as others. We need structural structural tax reform to help boost economic development. … I also think you will see a much more aggressive push for for fighting back against violent crime.”
Landry has campaigned on reining in crime in Louisiana including ending “catch and release” and increasing law enforcement pay, all of which Connaughton said is part of the reason Laundry is a relatable candidate.
“When people look at Jeff, they see someone they can relate to and trust to bring about substantive change,” Connaughton said. “Sean Wilson is more of the same, from a Democrat incumbent administration that has failed to make Louisiana a better place to call home. It’s a clear distinction between a candidate who can deliver a better future or [a] candidate who represents a failed past.”