ALFORD: The Millionaire Mythos & The Race For Governor

Is he in? 

Is he out? 

Does it matter right now? 

Even if it doesn't, the possibility of millionaire investor and political flirt Jim Bernhard buying into the 2019 ballot has supporters of Gov. John Bel Edwards buzzing. But not exactly panicking.

Let’s start with what we actually know. Last week the team over at LaPolitics.com was able to confirm the following two political tidbits (because to normal, non-political human beings, the information isn’t much more than that).

— Political Tidbit #1: Bernhard, the former chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party, has been quietly considering a bid for governor.

— Political Tidbit #2: Bernhard has also been meeting with political professionals known for their conservative credentials.

All the while, the natives of Capitoland have been growing increasingly restless. Some JBE boosters have even attempted to reach out to Bernhard — through backchannels and more conventional means — to advise against the move or to simply question his motives. 

You can't blame them. The last thing Edwards supporters want is a Fortune 500 darling jumping into the race with his own money and splintering the Democratic vote. And in case you don't know much about Bernhard, yes, he can afford such an endeavor.

— Political Tidbit #3: In 1987, Bernard and two other investors founded The Shaw Group, a corporation providing construction and maintenance services to energy companies. By the time Bernhard sold Shaw in 2013, it was worth $3 billion. The sale netted Bernhard $20.4 million in cash; $15.7 million in stock, which he eventually sold for $46 million; and $18.7 million in retirement benefits. 

Interestingly, there's also a Republican clique that views Bernhard as an answer to a few of its own prayers. But friends say selling Bernhard, a resident of Baton Rouge, on a party change would be a monumental undertaking. 

For now, most of this party-related chatter seems to be speculation only. Yet it would make sense if Bernhard indeed qualified and then adopted a Trump-like campaign strategy, which is another thread of conversation that's in heavy rotation in Baton Rouge. It's likewise a strategy we've seen before.

— Political Tidbit #4: Mike Foster, himself a successful businessman before going into politics, switched parties while qualifying for governor in 1995 and ultimately winning the post. It’s a seemingly timeless model that pre-dates Bernhard’s own abandoned political bids; runs for the U.S. Senate were explored in 2004, 2008 and 2010, and the waters for governor were tested in 2007 and 2015.

Having caught word of Bernhard’s most recent exploration, there’s another handful of GOP players, wishing upon a star that he flips his party registration, who see his candidacy as a way to potentially head off U.S. Sen. John Kennedy. The state’s junior senator remains a maybe-candidate who isn’t doling out many hints, but he’s also a heavy hitter who cannot be counted out until he’s actually out.

All of this noise (meaning the speculation, and even this column) is just that, and it’s mostly noise for political nerds, dedicated election-watchers and people who utilize background information to inform their understanding and opinions. An honest read on the developing field for governor, as August 2018 is coming into focus, would be less dramatic and more predictable.

— Political Tidbit #5: With no GOP-blessed challenger from the right, and really no announced opponents at all as of late July, Edwards, a centrist Democrat, has the clear advantage as the incumbent in this Louisiana race. But you can expect a full-throated challenge in 2019 from Republican forces. Viewed broadly, these forces can be divided into three distinct camps, each with its own class of contenders, including The Establishment Camp (Sen. Kennedy and Congressman Ralph Abraham); The Wildcard Camp (state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Attorney General Jeff Landry and Louisiana Association of Business and Industry President Stephen Waguespack); and The Wait-And-See Camp.

Bernhard's storyline, along with its swirling rumors and election intrigue, most certainly falls into the latter camp. 

Is he in? 

Is he out? 

Does it matter right now? 

All we can do is wait and see — an approach worth taking if you’re unimpressed with the developing field.

In some respects, Bernhard's intentions and actions aren't representative of this unfolding Bernhard storyline. The gossip-fueled narrative has taken on a life of its own as it has snaked through Louisiana's political landscape, being bent and shaped to fit the needs of Republicans who want an fresh alternative and Democrats who want to upset the status quo.

Of course, if Bernhard follows tradition, he'll avoid the ballot altogether and continue succeeding in business. In the meantime, he's an important political tidbit — not for his rumored candidacy, but rather for what it says about the delicate balance of this race for both Republicans and Democrats.

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