Treasurer’s Race Suffering From Donor Fatigue

Talk to some of the hands working on the various campaigns for state treasurer and they’ll agree about one thing — that very few people in Louisiana know there’s an election underway and even fewer actually care.

Then go and sit a spell with the reporters covering the race. They might tell you how unexciting and bland the entire affair has been. (So far, at least.)

None of the candidates are political superstars. There aren’t any red-hot issues driving the election discourse. Complicating matters further, the race for treasurer is the only statewide throw-down on the Oct. 14 ballot, unless you want to count three proposed constitutional amendments.

Lonely, overlooked and a bit of a bore, the treasurer's race has become the redheaded stepchild of Louisiana politics this year.

So much so that even donors aren’t stroking checks like they usually do. Fatigue is one of the culprits. Associations, wealthy civic activists and corporate leaders have already suffered through a non-stop, three-year election cycle, from 2014 through 2016.

That extended cycle hosted the most expensive U.S. Senate race ever waged on Louisiana soil and the most costly election for governor in Louisiana history. Wrestling dollars from contributors in the shadow of all that has been a challenge for even the best fundraisers.

To put a finer point on it, high-profile GOP donors are noticeably holding back a bit. They’re confident that the next state treasurer is going to be a Republican — either former commissioner of administration Angele Davis of Baton Rouge, state Sen. Neil Riser of Columbia or former state Rep. John Schroder of Covington.

Some conservative donors have had a hard time drawing distinctions between the three leading candidates, which is to say they’ll be pleased no matter which contender wins. They don’t see a reason to spend money needlessly.

Donors also like to pick winners, but so do politicians, and a nod from the latter will most certainly bring in dollars from the former. Had some political heavyweights like U.S. Sen. John Kennedy or Gov. John Bel Edwards picked a horse in the race, contributions would have likely spiked.

It’s a trend, however, that cuts both ways. No-one wants donors to have outsized influence in an election. But on the other hand, without the cash to operate effective campaigns candidates face obstacles in getting their ideas in front of voters.

Direct mail costs money. Radio and television spots cost money. Staffs and data and signs all cost money. Especially in a statewide election.

Maybe more donor activity would have generated actual interest in this race. That could have, in turn, convinced television stations to host a live exchange. As of this week there are no televised debates or forums scheduled, but you can still hear from the candidates in their TV and radio advertisements.

Schroder has more dough than his opposition to do that kind of outreach — about $614,000 as of a week and a half ago. Schroder was also his own largest donor, injecting $186,000 of personal cash into his campaign account.

Through mid-September, his campaign had made only $256,000 in expenditures. The rest of Schroder’s money is probably being spent as you read this column, as part of a last-minute TV splash aimed at capturing the imagination of voters. Davis had $354,000 available for spending in her campaign kitty, as of the latest campaign finance reports, to Riser’s $145,000 in cash on hand.

Meanwhile, New Orleans attorney Derrick Edwards, the lone Democrat in the field, raised just $6,500 during the last reporting period and had $666 in his coffers. If Edwards makes the runoff, his campaign will become the most cost-affordable statewide bid launched in recent history. As a novice candidate he’s on his own, and it didn’t help that he failed to gain the support of the Louisiana Democratic Party.

This lack of a consolidated front on the left has created a strange-bedfellows landscape where conservatives like Riser and Schroder are spending money with Democratic-leaning organizations that specialize in get-out-the-vote efforts. Without influential donors and important personalities from the Democratic ranks taking a stand, the door for such alliances has been kicked open.

The best we can hope for right now is that donor fatigue doesn’t translate into voter fatigue. But given the dismal turnout forecasts that are floating around — 15 percent to 20 percent statewide — that seems to be exactly what we’re looking at as September comes to a close.

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