Monday, April 07, 2008

Louisiana 6: Will Republicans Kick Away Another Special Election?

By Stuart Rothenberg

This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 3, 2008. Copyright 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

George W. Bush won 59 percent of the vote in Louisiana’s 6th district in 2004. That year, the district’s Congressman, Richard Baker (R), was re-elected with more than 70 percent of the vote. Two years later, Baker won an 11th term without major party opposition.

Yet in the special election in Baker’s Republican-leaning district, the Democrats have still another chance to swipe a Congressional district that, under normal circumstances, ought to stay in the Republican column.

Both parties will have runoffs on Saturday, with former state Rep. Woody Jenkins battling businesswoman Laurinda Calongne for the GOP nomination and state Reps. Don Cazayoux and Michael Jackson facing off for the Democratic nomination.

Jenkins came within a hair of winning his party’s nomination outright in the March 8 primary, while Cazayoux drew 35 percent to second-place finisher Jackson’s 27 percent in the Democratic primary.

If the expected happens — and in this political season that’s certainly not a given — Jenkins and Cazayoux will win their runoffs on Saturday and meet in the May 3 special election to fill the seat left vacant when Baker resigned to take a job in the private sector.

Jenkins served for almost three decades in the Louisiana House of Representatives, was the CEO of a local television station and, as the Republican Senate nominee in 1996, lost a squeaker to Mary Landrieu (D).

He is an icon among some conservatives, and his Web site cites endorsements from Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Dr. James Dobson, Dr. Tim LaHaye and veteran conservative activists Paul Weyrich, Howard Phillips, Morton Blackwell and Richard Viguerie.

The problem, say some Republicans who are watching the race closely, is that Jenkins is an incredibly controversial figure who, as one put it, “brings a significant amount of ethical baggage at a time when Louisiana is looking to turn the page” on that type of politician.

Critics of the conservative have charged him with knowingly renting former Klansman David Duke’s mailing list, as well as raising money for relief efforts in Central America, during the 1980s, that never made it to the supposed beneficiaries. Political insiders also worry that other problems, including tax issues and business failures, could surface during the race.

“It takes about two hours on Google to find five good attacks ads on Jenkins,” says one conservative Republican who doubts that Jenkins can win the May special election. “[The David Duke charge] is a hit that will stand up. His defense doesn’t really matter.”

The Duke charge was leveled at Jenkins during the primary by one of his Republican opponents, but observers say it was handled crudely by a candidate who had no credibility. Jenkins rebutted the charge in his own TV spot, but Republicans worry that the accusation will have more resonance in the special election.

Interestingly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been extremely tight-lipped about the race, apparently hoping that the controversial Jenkins will win the runoff.

Republican observers note that Jenkins is not without assets. “It would be a mistake to say that Woody is dumb,” said one insider. “He’s a smart guy. But he’s stubborn. He thinks he knows better than everyone else. And he doesn’t raise money. He has far too much confidence in his supposed grass-roots army.”

Through March 16, Jenkins had raised $291,000, with almost a third of it coming from Club for Growth members. He ended the reporting period with just $19,000 in the bank. Cazayoux had raised $565,000 for the race and ended the reporting period with $111,000 on hand.

Some GOP insiders had hoped Calongne, who put $239,000 of her own money into the race, would surprise Jenkins in the runoff. Most are pessimistic about that happening, arguing that she would have needed to be much more aggressive than she has been.

But one observer familiar with survey data in the contest argues that a Calongne upset of Jenkins on Saturday is not impossible, adding that Republican primary voters are extremely polarized in their attitudes about the former state legislator. “Jenkins’ numbers are immovable, both in a good and a bad way,” said the observer.

Nor do Republicans express much hope that Jackson, an African-American legislator with little money, can defeat Cazayoux in the Democratic runoff — an outcome that would almost certainly deliver the special election to the Republican nominee. Jackson had raised only $73,000 through March 16.

“Cazayoux’s ads have been far better than anyone else’s. His ads are top shelf, and he’s running a real campaign,” said one veteran observer of the contest who doesn’t have a rooting interest for the Democrat but believes he is likely to be the district’s next Congressman.

For the National Republican Congressional Committee, the race has all the marks of a “no-win” situation.

Another loss would embarrass NRCC Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) and negatively impact the financially strapped committee’s ability to raise money. And yet, if Jenkins becomes the party’s nominee, the NRCC doesn’t have the financial resources to waste on a candidate with such political baggage. The DCCC, on the other hand, has plenty of cash to put behind Cazayoux, if it needs to.

For Cole, a Jenkins runoff victory followed by a defeat in May would create another problem. A second straight special election defeat would once again raise questions about the NRCC chairman’s “hands-off” strategy in primaries.

The GOP outlook in Louisiana’s 6th district, like the NRCC’s outlook nationally, is gloomy.