As he arrived for a party in Uptown New Orleans last fall honoring U.S. Sen. John McCain, John Cooksey looked forward to greeting the former presidential contender, but he also hoped to have a few words with the hostess, Suzanne Haik Terrell.
The congressman from Monroe and the state elections commissioner from New Orleans go way back, in politics and ophthalmology. When he studied eye medicine at LSU Medical School, her father, Dr. George Haik, chaired the department. Before either entered politics, John and Suzie, who married an ophthalmologist, occasionally lobbied the state Legislature for ophthalmologists, taking their marching orders from Dr. Haik.
Serving on the New Orleans City Council, Terrell endorsed Cooksey when he ran for Congress in 1996. Three years later, when Terrell faced Woody Jenkins in a divisive, all-Republican runoff for elections commissioner, Cooksey crossed many of his conservative northeast Louisiana constituents by endorsing her.
On this evening in 2000, Cooksey was preparing his own statewide campaign, to challenge U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2002. But he was hearing through the grapevine that Suzie might enter that race herself.
So the old friends had something to talk about.
Their recollections from the evening differ.
"I asked her, 'Are you looking at this race?'" says Cooksey, "and she said, 'I'm not running if you run.'"
"I don't remember having the conversation," says Terrell.
Like it matters what two politicians say -- even promise -- to each other about an election two years away. But now, with a year to go before qualifying, the situation is no clearer, with Cooksey saying he's running and Terrell not saying she is not. All that has changed between the two old friends is that they don't talk much to each other any more.
Such standoffs between members of the same party are fairly common in politics. But in every other state, there are legal procedures -- primaries or a convention -- to break such impasses and to choose the party's standard-bearer in the general election. And then there is Louisiana, home of the open primary.
The stakes in the Louisiana election were already sky high when the Senate was evenly divided. But the defection of Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, giving control to the Democrats, makes the challenge to Mary Landrieu crucial if the Republicans are to win back the Senate and get the Bush administration's legislative agenda back on track.
Cooksey, who has started raising money, has done everything but formally announce. Terrell is saying publicly she is keeping her options open, but has told friends that she will run if she thinks she can win. She has even interviewed potential campaign consultants.
For state and national Republican leaders, the developing situation in Louisiana is a recurring nightmare: more than one strong Republican fighting over the same voters, fighting for the same contributors, ultimately fighting each other, while Democrats gain the advantage by default. That the roles are reversed for the two parties from time to time is little consolation to Republicans in the only election that counts, the next one.
Like so much else in politics, money is at the root of the problem. "I figure there is $5 to $7 million dollars out there to beat Mary Landrieu with," says veteran consultant Roy Fletcher, who is working for Cooksey. "If you split it up two ways, spending a whole lot of money (for two candidates) to get known, to build a positive image, that cuts into the money needed to draw distinctions. End up with that and you end up with nothing."
Even this story, like many more to come, instead of examining the record, character and philosophy of either Cooksey or Terrell, delves instead into the divide between them.
GOP concerns about the standoff are compounded by the realization that there is little they can do about it. Recent history tells that the more they try to force a solution, the more likely they are to make things worse.
In 1991, the GOP had a governor running for re-election, Buddy Roemer, but because he stubbornly refused to ask for the party's endorsement, it went to former congressman Clyde Holloway, and both finished behind Edwin Edwards and David Duke. In that primary, Republican candidates -- Duke, Roemer, Holloway -- received an astounding 65 percent of the vote, but Edwin Edwards won the runoff in a humiliating debacle for the Grand Old Party.
Party leaders thought they had learned their lesson in 1996, when they took a hands-off approach as six Republicans, including Duke, ran for the open Senate seat. But in a standoff of egos, none dropped out as the summer campaign wore on. They split conservative support so evenly that polls showed two Democrats, Landrieu and Attorney General Richard Ieyoub, leading the pack for most of the race. The same polls showed that if one Republican did emerge, it could easily be Duke again.
Toward the end of the primary, with arch-conservative Woody Jenkins gaining support on the right, then-Congressman Bob Livingston reluctantly endorsed Jenkins, though he was widely considered the least electable in a runoff. That he came within 5,788 votes of beating Landrieu grates even more at Republican leaders, who believe they could have won with another candidate.
With their second shot at Landrieu, Republican officials are still groping, hoping for some consensus, some intercession, something, anything, that will give them a single strong candidate to rally around before 2002 begins.
There was some brave talk earlier this year from major party contributor Boysie Bollinger, who told The Times-Picayune, "We need only one Republican candidate, not two. I'll see to that." But Bollinger is no honest broker; he is the finance chairman for Cooksey. Other party leaders, from Congressman Billy Tauzin to Gov. Mike Foster, are avoiding taking sides for now and hoping they won't have to later.
Said one top Republican operative, "You've got two stubborn, determined, hard-willed people. I don't see either one giving up because someone says you need to bow out of the race."
The McCrery Theory
But not everyone buys the idea that fixing on a single candidate is the only way to defeat Landrieu. Congressman Jim McCrery of Shreveport believes the opposite. "All I hear is this drivel about how we need to get behind one candidate," McCrery told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "They all come to me and they think I'm gonna agree. I say 'No, I don't.' Then they don't call me again."
According to the McCrery theory, a lone Republican candidate has less of a chance to beat Landrieu in the primary of November 2002, with Democratic turnout efforts being pumped by hundreds of local races. Better, he thinks, to have two attractive Republicans drawing from bases in different parts of the state. If they manage to hold Landrieu below 50 percent of the vote, McCrery sees the advantage shifting to the Republicans in a low-turnout runoff in December.
The multi-candidate theory rests on the assumption that the two Republicans will both take the fight to Landrieu instead of to each other in a nasty, self-defeating intramural squabble. But politics and human nature suggest that the latter scenario is just as likely, or more so, to unfold.
So the two candidates ply their own courses. Cooksey is out there, raising money in Louisiana and in Washington -- about $500,000 so far -- and putting together a statewide campaign organization.
"There is no indecision on my part," says Cooksey. "That will not change if another candidate gets in the race."
Despite intense speculation and constant questions, Terrell is not budging from her open-options position. "The only way to stop the speculation is to make a huge announcement and I don't have a huge announcement to make," she says.
Terrell is planning a round of fundraising this fall, to maintain political readiness if nothing else. But in order to use it in a federal election, she would have to at least form an exploratory committee, which she is not ready to do.
Both lay claim to solid Republican credentials.
Cooksey has built a record in the House that indicates the kind of senator he would be. He has been conservative on fiscal issues and his pro-life position on abortion tracks the party platform. Yet, he was one of the early GOP congressmen to defy the party leadership to back the rights of patients to sue their HMOs.
Terrell proved her mettle as a budget-cutter when she reduced her payroll and cancelled contracts signed by her predecessor, who is now in federal prison. She was the co-chair of the Bush campaign in Louisiana in 2000 and has good connections in the top echelons of the party and the White House staff.
She has been elected statewide, which Cooksey has not. As a woman from the New Orleans area, she believes she can lure away swing voters from Landrieu, especially among women in south Louisiana, whom Cooksey cannot reach. But Cooksey has shown he can win the votes of hard-core conservatives, which no Republican can win without.
Her strategy for now seems to be to lay back while Cooksey tries to extend himself as a statewide political figure. If he falters, if polls continue to show him trailing Terrell in trial heats with Landrieu, his fundraising could dry up, and she could step into the breach.
But if Cooksey plows ahead, raising money and building his base, she will have to decide if she wants to get into a three-way race against two formidable politicians with established bases.
An independent poll conducted by Southern Media earlier this year showed Terrell faring slightly better than Cooksey in one-on-one trial heats against Landrieu. Yet, in a three-way primary, Terrell could get caught in the wrong spot: the middle.
As past races with multi-Republican fields indicate, the one that captures the right survives for the runoff, e.g., Duke in '91, Foster in '95, Jenkins in '96. Cooksey was elected in Duke's stronghold of northeast Louisiana, while Terrell and New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial endorsed each other in their 1994 city elections. How will that go down in a battle for the Bubba vote?
If it comes down to the spectacle of two Republicans slamming and clawing each other to make it to the runoff, will it matter which one does?
The McCrery theory notwithstanding, most Republicans believe their chances of beating Mary Landrieu and winning back the Senate would improve dramatically if one were to gracefully bow out and endorse the other.
There is perhaps only one Republican who could make that happen, but George W. Bush is not yet ready to make that call.
- Suzanne Haik Terell
- John Cooksey