Presidential elections usually produce Louisiana's highest voter turnouts, but turnout on Nov. 2 may be driven more by races inside the state than by the one for the Oval Office.
Sharing the ballot with the presidential contest on Nov. 2 are a red-hot primary for John Breaux's U.S. Senate seat and two hotly contested primaries for open congressional seats in the state's Cajun parishes. Locally, Nov. 2 also will see runoffs for Irma Muse Dixon's seat on the Public Service Commission (PSC), for the New Orleans Criminal Sheriff's job, and for two school board seats. Those races are sure to boost turnout in the Crescent City.
Statewide, Republicans will push hard to give President George W. Bush Louisiana's nine Electoral College votes, which he is heavily favored to win. They also hope to give Congressman David Vitter of Metairie a big lead in the Senate race. Vitter is the only major Republican in that contest, and he should run first in the Nov. 2 primary. Some polls show him getting half or more of the vote, but few think he can win outright on Nov. 2.
Vitter's three major Democratic rivals are Congressman Chris John of Crowley, state Treasurer John Kennedy of Baton Rouge and state Rep. Arthur Morrell of New Orleans. John will be aided by high turnouts in the Cajun congressional races. One of those contests is for John's District 7 seat; the other is for the District 3 seat being vacated by Congressman Billy Tauzin, who is retiring. Cajuns typically support one of their own, and big turnouts in those congressional contests could catapult John past Kennedy, who has run slightly ahead of John in most recent polls.
Kennedy himself should get an assist on Nov. 2 as a result of the runoff for mayor of Baton Rouge. In that contest, Republican incumbent Bobby Simpson faces Democratic state Sen. Kip Holden. Holden, who is African American, should boost black turnout in the Capitol City, and that too will help Kennedy, who always runs well among black voters -- especially in the Baton Rouge area. Kennedy has staked out a populist message in his TV ads, and that could help him in other Democratic strongholds.
Vitter's District 1 congressional seat also is up for grabs, but that contest has become a ho-hum affair and probably won't generate a high turnout. In that race, Republican Bobby Jindal's chief GOP rivals have all withdrawn. The absence of hotly contested congressional races in central and north Louisiana also will work against Vitter, who runs extremely well in those areas. Still, there is no doubt that Vitter will lead the pack on Nov. 2. The only question is, by how much?
Locally, the PSC runoff could rival the race for Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff as the hot-button election. In the PSC race, First City Court Constable Lambert Boissiere III faces state Sen. Cleo Fields, who remains a political lightning rod years after federal agents videotaped him stuffing $20,000 down his pants in Edwin Edwards' law office. The PSC race marks the first time since the Edwards gambling scandals that Fields has campaigned outside his state Senate district. He will generate a big turnout in his favor in the Baton Rouge area -- and a huge turnout against him in the New Orleans area.
Similarly, the criminal sheriff's race will generate a large turnout in New Orleans. In that contest, City Councilman Marlin Gusman faces former Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley. Gusman is backed by a host of elected officials and political organizations, while Riley has the support of Mayor Ray Nagin. Many are trumpeting this showdown as the first round of the February 2006 mayor's race, but that's overstating things. It also gives short shrift to the importance of the office and to the campaigns of Gusman and Riley, each of whom is a fine candidate. Besides, no one has yet surfaced as Nagin's logical foe -- least of all Clerk of Criminal District Court Kimberly Williamson Butler, who finds herself on the hot seat after the voting-machine debacle of Sept. 18. For now, there are plenty of good reasons to vote on Nov. 2. And after the votes are counted, there'll be plenty more to talk about.