The 2008 election season has gone from routine to unpredictable practically overnight. Consider what's on tap for the next 11 months: Longtime Shreveport Rep. Jim McCrery, a Republican, is retiring, and the seat is now seen as a toss-up that could go Democratic for the first time in recent history.
Two or three strong Democrats, maybe more, should surface to challenge embattled Congressman Bill Jefferson, who is seen as more vulnerable than ever. Regardless of whether Jefferson beats the 16 federal corruption charges that are pending against him, he faces another career-defining re-election contest next year.
The seat being left vacant by Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal will likely stay in Republican hands, but the competitors are stacking up in what promises to be a showdown between the north and south shores of Lake Pontchartrain.
The wild card on the ballot could be Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville whose recent vote on a right-to-work bill has angered his labor support. For Democrats, labor money can account for up to 30 percent of a campaign kitty. This race, although quiet up to now, could heat up. Additionally, with the number of voters Melancon's district lost after the 2005 hurricanes, and with redistricting on the horizon in 2011, Melancon's camp is already nervous about the future.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in fact, gave rise to the two most organized challenges to members of the Louisiana delegation. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is hoping the Democratic base of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of New Orleans has been reduced to the point of benefiting a GOP challenger. The NRSC has handpicked state Treasurer John Kennedy as its conservative standard bearer, but Secretary of State Jay Dardenne has not yet ruled out a run of his own.
Landrieu's vulnerability is not being taken lightly on Capitol Hill. In a recent report published by Congressional Quarterly, a non-partisan publication, Landrieu's name was mentioned as a possible appointee to the Department of Homeland Security should a Democrat take the White House. The report suggested that Landrieu would 'land softly" if taken out by Kennedy, Dardenne or another Republican.
For now, the NRSC is sticking to a script based on opposition research, attacking Landrieu on her votes and quotes. Most recently, the group lashed out at Landrieu for standing with Democrats in the Senate to insist upon adding troop withdrawal timetables to emergency spending legislation for the military. President Bush has promised he would veto any legislation with such language.
According to a senior Army officer quoted in a story on Military.com, an online news hub connected closely with the armed forces, 'Quality of life programs for soldiers and their families would be affected worldwide if the Army doesn't receive additional funding from Congress soon." The story goes on to claim that roughly '200,000 Army civilians and contractors worldwide could be furloughed or temporarily laid off if the funding isn't provided."
NRSC Communications Director Rebecca Fisher is milking it for all she can. 'The necessary additional funding is being held up by Mary Landrieu and Democrats in Congress who continue to insist upon adding troop withdrawal timetables to the emergency spending legislation for the military," Fisher says. 'How does Mary Landrieu plan on explaining to voters in Louisiana that since Democrats have put thousands of Americans out of work, they might not be having Christmas?"
Landrieu says she didn't want to see the funding 'interrupted by a partisan political fight," but that a stand had to be made on the issue. 'We need to establish specific objectives for our presence [in Iraq], clear benchmarks for our success, and a commitment to bringing our troops home once these goals are achieved," Landrieu says. 'But unrealistic timetables or irresponsible cuts to troop funding are not acceptable substitutes for a coherent strategy."
Louisiana's senior senator will surely be taken to task on every disputed vote, but she has also been proactive, filing legislation on immigration and terrorism that moves her to the center of the political spectrum.
While somewhat counterintuitive to the GOP's post-Katrina strategy, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting Rep. Richard Baker of Baton Rouge because there could be a lot of new Democratic voters in Baker's Sixth District. Most of those Democrats were displaced by the hurricanes from their homes in New Orleans.
'Richard Baker is definitely one of our targets this session," says Kyra Jennings, a DCCC spokesperson. 'We believe he is vulnerable, but it will take the right kind of Democrat to run in that district, someone who is moderate-to-conservative, and we have been recruiting that caliber of candidate." State Rep. Don Cazayoux of New Roads, who seems to have been edged out of the race for House speaker, is at the top of this relatively small list.
The tough talk is nothing new for Baker; stiff opposition has manifested itself before. 'My district has a long history of being targeted like this, and I'm expecting more of the same next year," Baker says. 'Democrats are going to be spending a lot of money in the Senate race and presidential race, so they figure they may as well drop some money in this one, too."
More than anything else, party loyalty is a major theme among state GOP die-hards these days when addressing Baker's future. He went out on a limb during this year's elections, endorsing Democrats for statewide and local offices. The decision has infuriated a few big-money Republicans, one veteran strategist says, and they won't soon forget. When asked why he would risk that kind of backlash from his GOP base, Baker says he was simply paying for chips being cashed by people he respects. 'In politics, you have friends " and you don't ask your friends whether they're Republican or Democrat," Baker says. 'In past campaigns, I have had Democrats support me to their detriment, and I was merely returning political favors."
Favors are indeed good to have, but it appears both Baker and Landrieu will need much more than markers to make it through the 2008 election season. By some accounts, they might not be alone in struggling to hold onto their seats. Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu may face challenges from state Treasurer John Kennedy or Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, but her name has been mentioned as a possible Homeland Security appointment if a Democrat wins the White House.