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Showdown for Jindal's Seat

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While most of us are having ourselves a merry little Christmas, a handful of Republicans in southeast Louisiana will be working their tails off trying to put together campaigns for Congress. They each want to succeed Bobby Jindal, who will resign from Congress next month to become governor.

You might say Jindal is the Grinch who has stolen their Christmas. None of them is complaining.

The special election to succeed Jindal marks the beginning of a new era in Louisiana politics: a return to the old. For the first time in more than 30 years, candidates for federal office will run in separate party primaries. The primaries have been called for March 8, with party runoffs on April 5 and the general election on May 3. The Republican primary will be closed; that is, only registered Republicans can participate. The Democratic primary will be open to registered Democrats and to independents.

Candidates for state and local offices will still run in open primaries.

In the special election to succeed Jindal, all the interest is focused on the Republican side of the ledger. The GOP has owned Louisiana's First Congressional District since 1977, and the district shows no signs of changing its conservative ways. The district includes part of New Orleans, most of East Jefferson, part of St. Charles, and all of Tangipahoa, Washington and St. Tammany parishes.

As of last week, several well-known Republicans were positioning themselves to run. The 'definites" appeared to be Jefferson state Sen.-elect Steve Scalise, Jefferson Parish Councilman at-Large John Young, Slidell Mayor Ben Morris, and outgoing Mandeville state Rep. Tim Burns, who was term-limited this year. St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis, a potential Northshore front-runner, has yet to commit to the race. He was rumored to be in line for an appointment in the Jindal administration, but he downplayed that and promised an announcement this week. Former Gov. Dave Treen, 79, flirts with running for just about everything. He ran for the seat in 1999 but lost to David Vitter.

Given the lineup and the demographics of the district, the race is shaping up as a showdown between the Northshore and the Southshore " but probably not until the party runoffs in April. The March primary may devolve into separate mini-primaries between Young and Scalise on the Southshore, and Burns, Morris and (possibly) Davis on the Northshore " with the leading Northshore and Southshore candidates facing off in the GOP runoff April 5.

Part of what's causing this is the fact that each candidate has a strong geographic base on either the north or south shore of the district. Another key factor is the split in registration between the two sides of Lake Pontchartrain. Hurricane Katrina sent a wave of new residents to the Florida Parishes. The Northshore now has 54 percent of the GOP vote and 56.5 percent of the total registered voters.

Last week, Northshore interests were polling the district to determine which St. Tammany-based candidate has the best shot at winning. They want to unite behind one candidate and elect a Northshore congressman.

Meanwhile, on the Southshore, Young has the larger, parishwide political base but Scalise has lined up the bigger names in support of his candidacy. Former Congressman Bob Livingston, the first Republican to capture the seat since Reconstruction, joins financiers Boysie Bollinger and Joe Canizaro in backing Scalise, who demurred three years ago to let Jindal win the seat. Now, Scalise figures, it's his turn. The presence of Livingston, Bollinger and Canizaro in his camp should attract lots of money from individual GOP donors and PACs across the nation, which Scalise will need to offset Young's perceived local advantage.

Interestingly, among the announced candidates and Davis, all but Morris were just elected, re-elected or retired as a result of the October statewide primary. Scalise moved from the state House to the state Senate; Young was re-elected to the parish council; Davis won re-election as parish president; and Burns was forced to retire from the House by term limits. What that means is that the special election to succeed Jindal could lead to yet another special election to fill the office now held by Jindal's eventual successor.

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