Demo Dollars and Dirt Won La. Race

To no conservative’s surprise, the gleeful reports last week in the Washington Post and other liberal media about the Democratic triumph in a special U.S. House election in Louisiana May 3 suggested it was the beginning of a political tsunami that will demolish Republicans in ‘08. According to the Post story on Democrat Don Cazayoux’s victory in a district that had been in Republican hands for 33 years, Republicans “tried to turn [it] into a referendum on Sen. Barack Obama (D.-Ill.)” and failed. To believe the Post, one would have to accept that, after picking up 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.

But the national implications pundits and Democratic pols are trying to read into Cazayoux’s narrow (49% to 46%) win over Republican Woody Jenkins, are far from clear. As it was in the contests for the Hastert and Wicker seats, local in-fighting and other local circumstances more than any national trend tipped the race in the Pelican State’s 6th District (Baton Rouge) to the Democrats.

The turnout for the primary that was necessitated by the resignation of veteran Republican Rep. Richard Baker to take a private sector job was about 18%. Turnout dropped to 15% in the subsequent run-offs in which state legislator Cazayoux and Jenkins, a former state legislator and three-time GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate, were nominated by their respective parties. In the election last week, the turnout swelled to 23%.

“There were a lot more African-Americans voting — no question about it,” Lanny Keller, veteran editorial writer for the Baton Rouge Advocate, told me. “There was a strong effort on the ground to get turnout in the district [which is about 29% black] and automated phone messages by Michelle Obama urging people to vote .” In addition, sources close to the Jenkins camp told me that as many as eight mailings went to black precincts, one of them linking the Republican hopeful to David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and former Republican state legislator from Louisiana.

Jenkins may also have suffered from wounds inflicted during the GOP nomination battle. Businesswoman Laurinda Calonge, who spent from her own pocketbook and forced the conservative stalwart into a runoff, never endorsed Jenkins after he won the Republican nod. As Lanny Keller noted, “I can’t say whether that had an effect or not, but in East Baton Rouge, where Republicans usually get 54% of the vote, Jenkins barely edged out Cazayoux.” Keller added that Jenkins faced “a perfect opponent” in Cazayoux, who frequently voiced his pro-life and pro-2nd Amendment views and said nice things about John McCain.

It is estimated that the Democrat enjoyed a spending advantage of at least two to one. “But,” 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 two conservative groups (Freedomwatch and the Club for Growth) did put in an estimated $1 million to try to tie Cazayoux to Obama’s universal health care plan and “radical agenda.” Although local observers think this spending certainly helped make the race closer, it was not enough. In addition, the independent efforts did nothing to highlight Jenkins and his agenda of lower taxes, ending the estate and capital gains taxes, and maintaining a strong military.
The hard-hitting race against him, the use of innuendo and smear all brought me to one question:  Was James Carville involved?  Recently, the “Ragin’ Cajun” sold his house in the Washington, D.C., area and moved wife Mary Matalin and their children back to Louisiana. The tactics used against Jenkins were certainly reminiscent of tactics he has used against Republicans in the past.

“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’d say something like ‘Jenkins is going to be finished.’ He still remembered me, all right.” But, whatever Carville’s role — if any — in the Louisiana race, there were a lot of factors that resulted in the narrow Democratic victory we are hearing so much about, and they are not necessarily evidence of a national trend for races this fall.