THE FINAL ELECTION
The last major electoral contest of 2003 was one of the most disappointing for conservatives. Two years ago, in a race that inspired articles in such national publications as the New York Times and the Washington Post, conservative Republican Orlando Sanchez came within 11,000 votes out of more than 319,000 cast of becoming mayor of Houston, Texas. Had Sanchez overtaken incumbent Democrat Lee Brown that year, Houston would have become the largest city in the nation with a Latino mayor-and Sanchez would have been a national Republican star.
On December 6, former City Councilman Sanchez was again running for mayor. This time, with Brown termed out, Sanchez lost by a margin of 3 to 2 to Bill White, former Democratic state chairman and Clinton Administration official. The victory of White was coupled with that of leftist Democrat City Councilwoman Annise Parker as city controller. In rolling up 62% of the vote against fellow Council member Bruce Tatro-known as “Councilman No” for his consistent anti-spending votes-Parker becomes the first avowed lesbian to win citywide office in a major U.S. metropolis.
What happened in two years? Going from the near-triumph of the conservative Sanchez in ’01 to a liberal sweep of the municipal elections in ’03 requires some explanation, to say the least. Sanchez himself, local conservatives generally agree, made a critical error in not retaining his ’01 political consultant, Dennis Calabrese. Calabrese, whose clients have been exclusively conservative Republicans since 1984, had sculpted a hard-hitting, issue-oriented campaign two years ago that brought Sanchez within a few points of deposing incumbent Brown. In this campaign, however, the GOP hopeful retained Ned Holmes and Dave Walden-both of whom had been campaign commanders for Brown himself. Their campaign for Sanchez strongly downplayed his conservatism on issues such as cutting taxes, ending affirmative action, and rolling back the size of city government. As one Houston Republican activist noted, “They castrated him. The conservative base, which turned out in full force last time, had nothing to motivate it in this race.”
There was also considerable criticism on the right of the Harris County GOP organization. Two years ago, the county party was vigorously engaged in recruiting volunteers and hammering hard at the liberal positions of Sanchez opponent Brown. This time, the party did not go on the attack against White’s liberal position and there was significantly diminished evidence of large volunteer activity on their part for Sanchez.
To be sure, high-powered plaintiff’s attorney White did spend more than $8 million-a record for any political contest in Houston. Moreover, he had strong connections in the Houston business community and many pillars of that community who are considered Republicans weighed in strongly for Clinton Democrat White. Rich and Nancy Kinder, for example, are long-standing “Rangers” (high-dollar contributors and fund-raisers) for George W. Bush and were active supporters of White for mayor. The four living former mayors of Houston also strongly endorsed White-among them former Mayor (1964-74) Louie Welch, a strong conservative who made national headlines when he suggested that the solution to the spread of AIDS was to “shoot the queers.”
Summarizing the last major election of ’03, former Harris County (Houston) Republican Chairman and Sanchez booster Gary Polland concluded: “Dec. 6, 2003, is a date that will be remembered as a disastrous day for Houston.”
DOMINOES ON THE BAYOU
Two weeks ago, a day after three-term Sen. John Breaux (D.-La.) announced he was not running for re-election in ’04 (see “Breaux’s Retirement Could Mean GOP Pickup”), Republican Rep. David Vitter announced that he would be a candidate for the open Senate seat next year. One day after that, conservative Republican and State Rep. Steve Scalise declared for the open 1st District (New Orleans) seat vacated by friend Vitter. That same day, Democratic Rep. Chris John said he would have an announcement in early January which, Pelican State pundits and pols agree, will be a Senate candidacy of his own.
The dominoes are falling on the Bayou. Few observers doubt that the two major parties will settle on Vitter and John as their standard-bearers and that Breaux’s successor will be decided in the November election without the need for a subsequent run-off (which state law requires if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in November). With the 1st District firmly in Republican hands since it was won by House Appropriations Committee Chairman-to-be Bob Livingston in 1977 and then by Vitter after Livingston’s resignation in 1999, signs were strong that four-term legislator Scalise was the heir apparent for the congressional seat.
But is he? Within days of Scalise’s announcement, rumors were rampant among Louisiana GOPers that Bobby Jindal, who narrowly lost the gubernatorial contest last November, would move from his Baton Rouge home to New Orleans and challenge Scalise in the House race. Both the 32-year-old Jindal, onetime head of the state’s human services department and a Bush Administration official, and the 38-year-old Scalise are considered bright candidates who mesh solid conservatism with intellectual firepower. Scalise, widely regarded as the heir to conservative powerhouses in the legislature, such as 1996 GOP Senate nominee Woody Jenkins and present Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, was the author of legislation to shield gun manufacturers from tobacco-like lawsuits. Rated 98% by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Scalise also has widespread support among the New Orleans business community.
Many conservatives were saddened that Jindal, son of immigrants from India, was edged out of the governorship following what they considered a nasty campaign by Democrat Kathleen Blanco. Since the election, Jindal has been mentioned for a number of other options ranging from the race for Breaux’s Senate seat to the Bush Cabinet in the event of an opening. For his part, Jindal has ruled out a Senate race and is expected to make an announcement in January as to whether or not he will run for the House.
One of the hardest political nuts to crack for Republicans in Louisiana has been the 7th District, the so-called Cajun country that is home to heirs of French-speaking settlers and immortalized in Longfellow’s epic novel Evangeline. Represented in the House from 1964-73 by Edwin Edwards-later Louisiana’s four-term governor and presently a guest of the federal penitentiary-and from 1973-86 by John Breaux, the 7th has been seemingly untouchable by a Republican-even as the GOP was growing by leaps and bounds throughout the rest of the Pelican State. When the seat was last open in 1996, conservative Republican and University of Southwestern Louisiana Prof. David Thibodaux appeared to have broken the jinx by winning a position in the run-off with Democratic State Rep. Chris John. But, a recount gave the run-off spot to John’s fellow Democrat Hunter Lundy by a microscopic eight votes over Thibodaux. John went on to win the run-off with 53% of the vote.
Now, with John a near-certain Senate candidate, Republicans have another chance at the 7th. In contrast to past campaigns, signs are strong that party activists have settle on State Sen. Mike Michot as their standard-bearer next year. Hailing from the district’s population hub of Lafayette, Michot-in contrast to evangelical conservative Thibodaux in ’96-is considered acceptable to both cultural and economic conservatives within the GOP.
Two Democrats almost always characterized as to the left of “Blue Dog Democrat” John (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 51%) are already running for the seat: State Rep. Gil Panac of Crowley and State Sen. Willie (that’s a woman) Mount, a former mayor of Lake Charles.