With former President Donald Trump likely to play an outsized role in Louisiana’s governor’s race this year, only one of the seven candidates offered a strong defense of him following his indictment Tuesday on federal charges.
“This indictment gives the appearance that the government is weaponizing the Department of Justice for political gain,” Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has Trump’s endorsement, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Richard Nelson, a Republican from Mandeville, Democrat Shawn Wilson and independent Hunter Lundy all called the charges “serious.”
Three of the other Republican candidates – Stephen Waguespack, treasurer John Schroder and state Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell – chose not to comment on the indictment at all.
Reflecting the sensitivity of talking about the high-profile case in a state that Trump carried in the last two presidential elections, all of the seven candidates offered a written statement rather than submit to an interview.
None of the seven candidates in Louisiana believes that Trump should drop out of the race, as Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson have called for.
“His decision to run is his alone, and the voters will have the opportunity to weigh in at the ballot box,” said Wilson, who served as transportation secretary for Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Trump was indicted on 37 counts that accuse of him of hoarding classified documents, including highly sensitive information on nuclear codes and military secrets, and of thwarting government efforts to get them back. He pleaded not guilty in federal court in Miami.
Leading Republicans in Washington have denounced the indictment.
“Let’s be clear about what’s happening: Joe Biden is weaponizing his Department of Justice against his own political rival,” U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House Republican, has told reporters. “This sham indictment is the continuation of the endless political persecution of Donald Trump.”
There’s a reason none of the Republican candidates in Louisiana went as far in their comments, said Ron Faucheux, a former Senate aide in Washington who is now a New Orleans-based pollster and political analyst.
“It's politically dangerous for gubernatorial candidates to get sucked into Trump's legal tangles, pro or con,” Faucheux said. “That's why they will pivot away from the specifics of Trump's case and fall back on general principles of law such as ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ or ‘No one is above the law.’ We will also see most of the candidates warn against the governor's election becoming distracted by Trump's controversies, which is the best defense against talking about them.”
Schroder said only, “We are a country of laws, and every man or woman should be treated as innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law.”
Waguespack, a former president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and a former aide to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, also steered clear of the specifics.
“I’m focused on fixing the serious problems we have here in Louisiana,” Waguespack said. “Folks are tired of the endless distractions and revenge tactics used to attack political opponents. The indictments are concerning, but we have due process in this country and a jury will decide the outcome of this case.”
Hewitt took a similar line.
“I’ll let Trump answer for Trump, but I don’t approve of weaponizing our judicial system for political purposes,” Hewitt said, without clarifying whether she thought this was happening here. “Between Biden’s incoherence and Trump’s indictments, the only thing being left out of the conversation are kitchen table issues important to Louisiana families!”
Faucheux said none of the Republican candidates want to be seen as anti-Trump.
“But they also need to avoid endorsing Trump's conduct, which even many of his own supporters dislike,” Faucheux said. “Since Landry has Trump's support, the hard MAGA base will expect him to go further than the others in defending Trump,” he continued, referencing the “Make America Great Again” political slogan Trump has popularized.
Nelson, who worked for the U.S. State Department in Europe, took the strongest stance among the Republicans.
"I spent most of my professional life protecting our nation’s secrets, so I take the allegations very seriously,” Nelson said. “A lot of American blood and treasure goes into developing classified information. Trump has only been charged and is innocent until proven guilty, but if convicted, he should drop out of the race."
Wilson, running in a state where every statewide official but Edwards is a Republican, was softer in his response against Trump than many Democrats in liberal states.
“Any breach of national security, regardless of the individual, should be prosecuted,” Wilson said. “President Trump will face a jury of his peers to determine his guilt or innocence. He's afforded that right as a citizen, and regardless of our political beliefs, we shouldn't jump to conclusions.”
Lundy, a veteran trial attorney in Lake Charles, said he wouldn’t speak to the Justice Department’s motives in bringing the case and added, “If they can't prove this to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, it damages the nation and confidence in the rule of law. This is why we have a system of checks and balances.”