To believe the story of the Democratic win in the special election in Louisiana’s 6th District Saturday in the Sunday Washington Post, one would have to accept that Republicans “tried to turn [it] into a referendum on Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.)” and failed. And to believe the Post, you’d have to accept that, after picking up of the House district of former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert in Illinois in March and nearly winning a Mississippi district formerly held by appointed Republican Sen. Roger Wicker, Democrats are on a roll. After Don Cazayoux’s victory in a district that had been in GOP hands for 32 years, the Post believes that Dems “are poised for very large gains this fall.”
With all due respect to the Post, baloney. For all the national implications that pundits and Democratic pols are trying to read into Cazayoux’s narrow (49% to 46%) win over Republican Woody Jenkins, there isn’t much there. As it was in the contests for the Hastert and Wicker seats, local in-fighting and circumstances rather than any national trend tipped the race in the Baton Rouge district to the Democrats.
Less than two hours before the polls closed, I spoke to Jenkins, a former state legislator and three-time candidate for the U.S. Senate. Though the Republican might benefit that evening from the recent announcement of State Rep. (and Democratic primary loser to Cazayoux) Michael Jackson, an African-American, that he planned to challenge Cazayoux for nomination to a full term this fall, Jenkins also pointed out that Democrats were going all-out to ensure a big black turnout.
“Their mailings are linking me to David Duke,” Jenkins told me, referring to the onetime Ku Klux Klan leader with whom he served briefly in the state legislature. “You know me–I’ve fought David Duke my whole life. He’s an embarassment to the Republican Party.” (When I was first writng about Duke’s controversial background when he ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991, one of his stalwart enemies was Jenkins, who had known and fought the Klan leader since their undergraduate days when Duke would make inflammatory speeches at the storied “Free Speech Alley.”). Opposition mailers also noted that a charity run by Jenkins in the 1980’s, Friends of the Americas, once benefited from the support of Marine Lt. Col. and Iran-Contra figure Oliver North.
Jenkins did not believe that the refusal of his former primary foe or the insurgent candidacy of another conservative would matter much. Yet in East Baton Rouge, which had always turned out reliably for Republicans, Jenkins lost by 54%-to-46%. In an interesting result, he actually overperformed for a Republican in West and East Feliciani Counties; had he simply held the GOP base in East Baton Rouge, he would have won. As for the independent candidacy of conservative Ashley Carson, one “numbers cruncher” I talked to said without her, Jenkins would have won by about 700 votes.
Estimates of the spending advantage enjoyed by the Democrat are about two-to-one. For all the reports on him as a “poorly funded candidate,” Jenkins told me “If you take away the money from trial lawyers and labor unions,we outraised him. They saw this race as an opportunity and took it.” In addition, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has a seven-to-one fund-raising advantage over its GOP counterpart, also weighed in for Cazayoux.
In the end, the National Republican Congressional Committee and several conservative groups did put in an estimated $1 million to tie Cazayoux to Obama’s universal health care plan and “radical agenda.” Although it certainly helped make the race closer, it was not enough.
Talk that Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who strongly endorsed and supported Jenkins, suffered a setback also doesn’t hold water. Although Jindal was involved, the unique circumstances that elected a Democrat had nothing to do with the popular Republican governor, whom polls show the best-liked politician in the Cajun State. The same day that Jenkins lost, State Sen. Steve Scalise, a conservative also endorsed by Jindal, won the governor’s former House district with 75% of the vote.
The hard-hitting race against him, the use of inuendo and smear all brought me to one question: was James Carville involved? Recently, the “ragin’ Cajun” sold his home in the Washington DC area and moved wife Mary Matalin and their children back to Louisiana. The tactics used against Jenkins certainly bore his trademarks.
“I’m sure he was involved, somewhere,” Jenkins said, “He’s from this part of the state and we were in law school together, when he was an errand boy for Edwin Edwards [the four-term Democratic governor imprisoned on corruption charges]. Those kind of tactics Carville is known for and whenever he was interviewed about Louisiana politics, he say something like ‘Jenkins is going to be finished.’ He still remembered me,. all right.”
Whatver Carville’s role, there were a lot of factors that resulted in the narrow Democratic victory we are hearing so much about. But is it a sure sign of things to come in congressional races? Hardly.