KENNER, Louisiana – Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will declare his candidacy for president here on Wednesday, making him the 13th Republican to get into the race.
“We get into the race at 5 o’clock tonight,” adviser Curt Anderson told reporters at a morning briefing. Shortly afterward, Jindal tweeted the news and a hidden-camera style video of the governor telling his kids about his decision to run. His daughter quickly leveraged the information, requesting a puppy as her share of the deal.
“OK, if we move into the White House, you can have a puppy,” Jindal told his daughter.
The announcement has been a long time coming – the governor has spent years injecting himself into the national conversation on everything from terrorism in the Middle East to education – and according to p2016.org, he’s already spent more than two weeks in Iowa campaigning.
He barely registers on national polls, but his campaign told reporters that they’re not worried about him and that he’s won tough primaries before.
“We start from nowhere and we are completely fine with that,” Anderson said.
Speaking from Kenner, in the Louisiana district that first elected Jindal to Congress in 2004, Jindal is set to pitch himself as the candidate who can offer a viable Republican alternative to everything from Common Core to Obamacare. The governor barely registers in national polls, but it’s clear that he’s hoping his policy ideas can set him apart in the crowded Republican field.
“One of the things I’ve done differently from anybody else running or thinking about running,” Jindal said on “Morning Joe” in May, “we spent the last year and a half through America Next, a not-for-profit, coming up with detailed ideas on health care, on energy, on education, on foreign policy. I think we need the next president to do something, not just somebody who wants to be somebody.”
But Jindal’s reforms in the state also helped make him one of the most unpopular governors the state has ever seen. Just 31.8% of voters approve of the governor, according to Southern Media & Opinion Research; that’s the same low rating the firm found for Democrat Gov. Kathleen Blanco in 2006 after the botched Hurricane Katrina recovery, and Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1980, amid a corruption scandal, the pollsters told msnbc. Even President Obama fares better in the eyes of voters in the red state, with a 42.1% approval rating.
In recent months, Jindal has highlighted his credentials on education reform, religious liberty and fiscal issues.
This spring, as debate raged over controversial religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas, Jindal championed even stricter legislation, which would have given absolute protections to those who oppose gay marriage on religious grounds. When the state legislature shot it down, Jindal issued an executive order mandating that those protections be instituted.
The bill and executive order earned Jindal ire from corporations who do business in the state, New Orleans’ tourism industry and activists alike; IBM even cancelled a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Baton Rouge this week because of the company’s strong opposition to the executive order. But Jindal took a populist tact, saying he won’t bow to big business and corporate pressures.
Jindal has celebrated the executive order as an achievement, blasting out press releases about it and mentioning it in Iowa, where evangelicals make up a significant portion of conservative voters in the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus. A pro-Jindal group has already begun running an ad supporting the governor’s stance on it.
“This is not about discriminating against anyone or about judging people. This is simply about protecting the essential religious freedom rights in the First Amendment,” Jindal told msnbc in April.
On Wednesday, Jindal is expected to paint himself as small government conservative with a record of keeping taxes low and budgets balanced.
“I’m proud that we came together this session to pass a balanced budget that protects higher education and health care without a tax increase,” Jindal said in a press release earlier this month after the budget passed.
But Republican legislators that worked on that bill told msnbc it absolutely did raise hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes to close a $1.6 billion budget gap – taxes that were offset by what Republican Rep. Cameron Henry calls an “accounting gimmick,” a higher education tax credit that covers a student fee that was created to balance out the tax hikes.
The supposed credit doesn’t save students money, two Republican legislators said, explaining that it simply moves money around under the auspices of a tax credit. It did, however, earn the approval of the Americans for Tax Reform’s anti-tax crusader, Grover Norquist, something Jindal told legislators was key to his approval of the budget.
“If you asked him, what he’d say is, ‘I pledged to do something and I was going to do whatever it took to keep my word,’” Republican state Rep. Chris Broadwater told msnbc. “The more cynical view that folks would say he’s moving into an election year to be able to say I had a balance budget without raising taxes sells politically. The truth is probably a combination of both those things.”
In Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, Jindal is also likely to focus on his education reform record. As governor, he has worked to decentralize school districts into networks of independently run charter schools and implement school choice statewide. In New Orleans’ once-failing school system, graduation rates have risen dramatically, but parent advocates say special needs students are still struggling.
They say that kids are routinely being denied the legally required accommodations their disabilities entitle them to, counseled to transfer to other schools, or discouraged from even attending certain schools. While none of this is allowed by state regulations, advocates say limited oversight makes it common in practice.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sued in 2010, alleging that a number of charter schools were disobeying federal disability law with these practices. After years of legal battles, a settlement reached between the state and SPLC will go into effect this month, resulting in more oversight of special needs students’ educations.
The Jindal administration says the system is evolving – one school found to be not educating special needs students properly was shut down this year – but, they say, choice is key to overall success.
“Under the traditional model, parents and students are a captive audience and they don’t have any leverage with the school district,” Jindal’s assistant chief of staff Stafford Palmieri told msnbc. “In the choice model, we’ve empowered parents to vote with their feet because the dollars follow the students with the choices they make.”
Additional reporting by Anthony Terrell.