BATON ROUGE — Just weeks before he is expected to announce his presidential campaign, Bobby Jindal is at the nadir of his political career.
The Republican governor is at open war with many of his erstwhile allies in the business community and the legislature. He spent weeks pushing a “religious freedom” bill that failed to pass, while having little contact with legislators trying to solve Louisiana’s worst budget crisis in 25 years.
Jindal is now so unpopular in deep-red Louisiana that his approval rating plunged to 32 percent in a recent poll — compared with 42 percent for President Obama, who lost the state by 17 percentage points in 2012.
“This is very much a low point for Bobby Jindal,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who is preparing a book on the governor.
Much of the trouble swirling around Jindal is connected to his unannounced presidential campaign and his regular travels to early primary states, which have angered many of his fellow Republicans in the GOP-controlled legislature.
In recent months, Jindal has focused his political energy here on trying to appeal to social conservatives nationally by pushing the Marriage and Conscience Act, which would have prohibited the state from taking “adverse action” against those opposed to same-sex marriage. But the measure died last month in the legislature amid opposition from major corporations that feared boycott threats by gay rights groups viewing such measures as sanctioning discrimination.
The legislature is also in the final days of grappling with the budget crisis, which was caused, in part, by personal and corporate tax cuts passed under Jindal’s watch that haven’t paid for themselves.
Yet he has kept up his thinly veiled 2016 travels, having appeared at political events Monday in New Hampshire and Tuesday in Florida. Jindal will announce his plans in New Orleans on June 24.
Jindal will need a serious bump in popularity if he hopes to compete: Currently, he doesn’t make the Top 10 cut in national polls to participate in the first Republican presidential debate, to be held Aug. 6 in Cleveland.
But Jindal told reporters recently that he is merely paying the price for making hard choices in cutting the number of state employees and refusing to raise taxes. He also vowed to do the same if he won the White House.
“If I were to run for president, it would certainly be based on the premise that this country needs big changes,” Jindal said. “We need somebody who will go to D.C. and rescue the American Dream from becoming the European nightmare. This president has presided over an expansion in federal government spending, taxing, borrowing and regulating that is hurting our economy.”
A Rhodes scholar long described as a whiz kid, Jindal headed Louisiana’s state Department of Health and Hospitals at 24, moved on to a series of high-level government jobs, was elected to Congress at 33 and now, at 43, is completing his second and final term as governor. Until recently, he was described as a rising star in the Republican Party.
“A lot of people disapprove of his national travel at a time of a budget crisis,” said Bernie Pinsonat, whose firm, Baton Rouge-based Southern Media & Opinion Research, conducted the poll showing Jindal at 32 percent favorability.
“There’s been no end in sight to the red ink and headlines over concerns about state cuts to public hospitals and universities,” Pinsonat said.
The governor has championed a business-friendly environment in Louisiana, supporting tax breaks for companies, revamping the state’s worker-training programs to better suit the needs of businesses and depleting a $450 million economic-development fund to subsidize new plants and facilities.
But his rightward turn ahead of a likely presidential run has also put him in conflict with the business community. Jindal dropped his support of the business-backed Common Core education standards and this year pushed the legislature to abandon them; state lawmakers paid him no heed.
With Louisiana facing a projected $1.6 billion budget deficit this year — 20 percent of the state’s general fund — Jindal sought to eliminate $526 million per year of tax refunds given to businesses.
Nixing the refunds — which Jindal calls “corporate welfare” — adheres to the guidelines of Americans for Tax Reform, the influential anti-tax group run by Grover Norquist. But business leaders say Jindal is trying to raise their taxes.
In the meantime, Jindal made passage of the Marriage and Conscience Act one of his three legislative priorities this year. He said it would protect those who oppose same-sex marriages.
“In Indiana and Arkansas, large corporations recently joined left-wing activists to bully elected officials into backing away from strong protections for religious liberty,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed in late April. “It was disappointing to see conservative leaders so hastily retreat on legislation that would simply allow for an individual or business to claim a right to free exercise of religion in a court of law.”
IBM, Dow Chemical, the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau and gay rights groups all opposed Jindal’s bill, and lawmakers wanted no part of the controversial legislation in an election year. They gave it a single committee hearing late in the session before it was killed on a 10-to-2 vote.
Two hours later, Jindal issued an executive order prohibiting the executive branch from taking action against anyone who opposes same-sex marriage.
“We perceive this as largely a political statement by our conservative governor in support of his national position on the issue,” the convention bureau said in a statement, adding that the order was not likely to have any practical impact.
Buddy Roemer, a former Republican governor, said many are disappointed in Jindal and doubt his ability to mount a credible presidential bid.
“Several times a day, I get phone calls from business people who are concerned,” Roemer said. “They are irate, angry and bewildered at how he thinks he can amass a national political following. The next governor will have to spend four years making tough decisions that Jindal hasn’t made.”
Bridges is a freelance writer.