It was like a meeting between opposing fight promoters on the eve of their championship match. On one side, there was Brian Welsh, the colorful spokesperson for Louisiana Victory 2008, the Democrats' federal campaign arm in Louisiana. If the ongoing U.S. Senate election has a Don King figure, it's Welsh. He's made a name for himself by posting humorous YouTube videos that shred GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy to pieces. Welsh also infiltrated a Kennedy campaign rally this year and handed out "Kennedy/Democrat" stickers, which the candidate originally used in his 2004 left-of-center run for the U.S. Senate before he switched to the Republican Party.
On the other side was Leonardo "Call-Me-Lenny" Alcivar, Kennedy's press secretary. Alcivar is quick on his feet and equally as fearless in his attacks against incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat seeking a third term on the Hill. He has accused Louisiana's senior senator of "intellectualizing the meaning of liberal" and once responded to Landrieu's pro-earmark comments by simply saying, "We wish her good luck with that."
Along with Welsh, Alcivar was at the Baton Rouge Press Club last week for the highly anticipated first debate between Kennedy and Landrieu. As soon as the two operatives saw each other, hands were extended " for shaking, not fighting. The men already know each other well and have even shared beers.
"Man, what is the deal with the one podium?" Alcivar asks, shaking his head.
"I don't know, man. You know, they're reporters," Welsh responds.
Alcivar seems satisfied with the answer and trots back to his corner, which is filled with other twenty- and thirtysomethings wearing Kennedy/Republican stickers on their blue blazers. The two candidates will have to share a podium. Each will sit while the other speaks, rather than both standing behind their own podiums the entire time, as is the norm in political debates. It's really not that big a deal, but the two promoters need something to grumble about.
The silliness of the situation is a metaphor for the nitpicking that has come to define, in part, Louisiana's Senate campaign. A few weeks ago, the camps traded barbs over the date and time of a debate that was to be televised on WWL-TV, which Kennedy and Landrieu finally agreed on at the last minute, but which nearly gave WWL news director Chris Slaughter ulcers in the meantime.
That said, none of this seems personal between Alcivar and Welsh. That acrimony is left to Kennedy and Landrieu, who, as of late, truly seem to despise each other, like cartoon cats and their mousy counterparts " or Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.
The Landrieu-Kennedy brawl marks an interesting turn of events, considering both of them were in the same party roughly a year ago. And even today, their fates appear similar, depending on the outcome of their current battle. In the end, only one will be left standing. If Landrieu, 52, should lose, she'll likely enter the lucrative world of consulting, as have several of Louisiana's former congressmen and senators. A defeat for Kennedy, 56, could likewise kill any future hopes for federal office. He's already failed in a previous run for the U.S. Senate and a Louisiana gubernatorial bid. In the next two weeks, the state's voters will witness the final rounds of a political championship bout, and if the past is prologue, we won't know the winner until hours after the closing bell on Election Day, Nov. 4. The Sparring During last week's Baton Rouge debate, both candidates were scrappy in a last-time-at-bat kind of way. Landrieu touted her experience, listing practically everything she has delivered to the state in recent years. Each time she spoke, she also attacked Kennedy, chiefly for changing parties and for a few of his new conservative stances. Kennedy, meanwhile, presented himself as a change agent, lashing out at Landrieu for her "liberal" voting record and ties to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
Presidential politics will play a major role in this election. For starters, the presidential race paints a clear dividing line between the candidates. That may help, because on many traditional conservative-liberal issues, the two candidates are all over the map. For instance, they have both supported certain pro-choice positions in the past, but are now essentially both running as pro-life. While Kennedy once supported certain exceptions, according to campaign questionnaires, he is now 100 percent pro-life, according to a recent right-to-life survey. As for Landrieu, she votes in favor of pro-life proposals roughly one-third of the time, but largely supports choice. She opposes late-term abortions, however.
The Iraq war also divides the candidates. Landrieu says if she would have known in 2003 what she knows now such as the absence of weapons of mass destruction and other factors she "would not have voted for the use of force" resolution presented by President George W. Bush.
Kennedy says he supports the president's war decisions, although he acknowledges that some things could have been handled differently. "Lord knows we made some mistakes in Iraq, but the surge is working," Kennedy says.
Both candidates oppose the recent $700 billion financial bailout approved by Congress and signed by Bush two weeks ago, but they offer different alternatives. Kennedy says Congress should have been more active in regulating financial institutions and that lawmakers particularly Landrieu have become too close to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "The fox cannot guard the henhouse," he says.
Kennedy also makes detailed suggestions on trimming the federal budget. He says if the United States would cut its payroll of $15 million by 10 percent, the savings would add up to $300 billion over 10 years.
For her part, Landrieu says she already has co-authored legislation that prohibits banks from making certain investments. She also points to her willingness to cross the aisle to find fiscal solutions, such as her support for the 2001 Bush tax cuts. "I am not an obstructionist," Landrieu says. "I'm one of the most independent members of the Senate."
On Social Security, Kennedy again bumps heads with Landrieu by suggesting that the market could bear private investments in the system, at least on a trial basis. It's in this area the fiscal realm where Kennedy's handlers contend he's strongest. It's certainly where his experience as treasurer shines the brightest (although Landrieu was state treasurer herself before winning her Senate seat). For this reason, Alcivar says voters will likely connect more with Kennedy in the coming weeks, especially with the nation's housing and banking markets in crisis.
For generations, Louisiana had at least one congressman or senator who could figure prominently in national fiscal issues. Former Sen. Russell Long, a Democrat, was one of them, as was congressman-turned-lobbyist Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge who retired earlier this year. Alcivar says Louisiana voters will come to see Kennedy in the same light. At least, that's what they'll be told by Alcivar and Co. The Knockout Punches Kennedy has been hammering away at Landrieu for her support of Obama, who Republicans hope will be a polarizing figure in the November election. It's one part of the U.S. Senate contest where race comes into play but each party views the Obama Factor differently. Louisiana Democrats believe Obama will energize their base, particularly black voters, which will help push Landrieu over the top. On the other hand, Elliott Stonecipher, a demographer and political analyst from Shreveport, says a large anti-Obama vote could offset the predicted pro-Obama surge. "Nothing is a guarantee," he says.
As for Landrieu, she isn't hiding her enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee. "I'm proud of my endorsement of Sen. Obama," she says. Meanwhile, Kennedy is taking his own lumps for his connections to another liberal Democratic presidential candidate Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whom Kennedy endorsed enthusiastically in 2004, the same year Kennedy ran as a liberal Democrat for the U.S. Senate against Republican David Vitter, who won.
Landrieu cites the treasurer's flip-flop (Kennedy is now a John McCain man) as proof that he is "one confused politician." During last week's debate, Landrieu said it was 'the kindest thing I can say [about Kennedy]."
In his defense, Kennedy now calls the endorsement "probably the biggest mistake of my political career." Of the accusation that he is confused, he says, "I don't think I'm confused. I think I'm just a conservative. I think Sen. Landrieu thinks most conservatives are confused."
The tactic of pointing out inconsistencies in Kennedy's newfound conservative stripes is a smart move for the Landrieu camp. According to Stonecipher, an analysis of Louisiana voting trends dating back to 1900 shows that conservatives poll better during presidential election years. In 1996, the year Democrat Bill Clinton ran for re-election, Landrieu almost lost her first U.S. Senate bid to conservative icon and former state Rep. Woody Jenkins of Baton Rouge. After a bloody runoff, Landrieu won by fewer than 5,800 votes. In Landrieu's re-election bid of 2002, a nonpresidential year, she won another hard-fought battle against Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell, but by a slightly more comfortable margin of 42,000 votes.
On the GOP side, the strongest punch landed by Kennedy thus far involves a literacy program supported by Landrieu, which on the surface doesn't sound bad. Earlier this year, though, it was revealed the senior senator secured a $2 million earmark for the Voyager reading program and later received $80,000 in campaign contributions linked to company officials. In her defense, Landrieu says her staff did not actively pursue the donations and that the superintendent of the Washington, D.C. public school system initially requested assistance for the program. "I have never taken a political contribution for acting a certain way and I never will," Landrieu says.
There also have been variations of political legerdemain in this battle along the lines of Sun Tzu's famous declaration, "All warfare is based on deception." Kennedy has repeatedly pummeled Landrieu on an issue near and dear to the senior senator oil and gas. He has labeled her as anti-drilling, even though fellow Democrats have chastised her for voting along Republican lines to expand exploration. What's more, Landrieu ensured that Louisiana will get a share of the royalties from production in federal waters off our coastline by co-authoring the bipartisan Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006. Louisiana's estimated $13 billion over the next three decades will be used for coastal restoration and hurricane recovery.
Chris John, the former Democratic congressman from Crowley who now serves as president of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, said in earlier interviews that any Bayou State member of Congress would be pro-oil, regardless of party affiliation. He says Kennedy's attacks are based on national talking points more than Landrieu's actual record. The Championship There's a great deal at stake this election year in the region surrounding Lafayette. Pundits and campaign staffers agree: as Acadiana goes, so goes the rest of the state. That's why the two campaigns are preparing to take it to the mat in Acadiana in coming weeks using everything from grassroots workers to substantial media buys.
Here's how Acadiana emerged as this year's pivotal swing region: Kennedy continues to poll strong in Louisiana's piney north, which was the original catalyst for him getting into the race. Not surprisingly, Landrieu has a stranglehold on her home base of New Orleans, but her performance in the Baton Rouge metro area and the easterly coastal parishes has been just as impressive. That leaves Acadiana as the battleground.
Scott Schneider, Landrieu's press secretary, says Democrats expect Acadiana to be one of the senator's strongest regions. "We'll be spending the last few weeks of the campaign in Acadiana talking about these accomplishments," Schneider says. "You'll see some heavy advertising blitzes and the biggest grassroots operation in Louisiana. I'm talking about in the field, block to block."
Stonecipher says Blanco's performance in Acadiana proved that the region is seldom a reliable source of votes for any candidate. "Even though you have a distinct culture there, the area is generally misunderstood," he says. "There's the absence of any favorite politician and voters seem to perform in ways that are not broadly seen in other parts of the state or readily understood."
On the surface, Acadiana seems better suited for Kennedy, at least philosophically. Cajun voters are generally conservative, and Acadiana has no Democratic stronghold as there is in southeast Louisiana, Landrieu's base. Additionally, its rural voters respond to issues such as Social Security and health care, which Kennedy manages to present in a nonhostile, Mayberry kind of way. But Acadiana won't tilt in either direction without a fight. "It's very important for John Kennedy to make hay in Acadiana," Stonecipher says.
On the other hand, timing and experience may push Landrieu over the top in Acadiana, says Dr. Pearson Cross, an assistant professor of political science at UL Lafayette. The Lafayette region is "all about pro-business politics," he says, and Landrieu has been able to deliver earmarks and jobs to the area for decades. She was in the state House during the 1980s, served as treasurer during the '90s and has been a member of the U.S. Senate for 12 years.
Earlier this year, Landrieu rolled out major endorsements from Acadian business leaders mostly rich, white men who would otherwise vote Republican. This time, however, they are willing to pose for pictures with and write big checks to a New Orleanian with some liberal tendencies.
Landrieu has even convinced a significant number of Republicans to endorse her. "This is not a race about Republican or Democrat," says Lafayette attorney Clay Allen, one of the founding members of the ethics-minded Blueprint Louisiana. "This is a race about demonstrated leadership." Others backing Landrieu include Bill Dore of Dore Energy; Bill Fenstermaker of Fenstermaker and Associates; Mark Miller of Merlin Oil and Gas; and Richard Zuschlag of Acadian Ambulance. "I wasn't surprised that the business community came out and backed Landrieu," Cross says. "I'm also not sure it's going to convince anyone new to vote for her."
Closer to her home, Landrieu has picked up significant endorsements from GOP officials in Jefferson, St. Tammany and Plaquemines parishes. The Jefferson Parish officials include Sheriff Newell Normand, state Sen. Danny Martiny of Kenner (who chairs the state Senate GOP delegation), Gretna City Councilman Chris Roberts and Jeff Parish school board member Libby Moran. In St. Tammany, Landrieu has backing from Parish President Kevin Davis, Sheriff Jack Strain, D.A. Walter Reed, Assessor Patricia Schwarz-Core, Mayors Candace Watkins of Covington and Mayson Foster of Hammond, and parish council member Kim Harbison. Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle also supports her. Taken together, Landrieu's Republican supporters leave a serious chink in Kennedy's conservative armor, and many of them have appeared in TV ads for the senator.
Then again, Kennedy has powerful friends in his own corner, including President George Bush and Gov. Bobby Jindal. Cross says the coming Battle of Acadiana has all the makings of a classic turf war that pits power against power. It's no wonder that both are mustering troops in the Cajun heartland and launching an all-out assault to influence voters. "It's going to be a really tough area for both of them," Cross says. "It's going to be very competitive and I think it's going to be close." The Final Round Back at the Baton Rouge Press Club debate, Alcivar and Welsh nod silently each time their respective fighter lands a joke or nails a sound bite. They're not alone. In the crowd is Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the senator's brother. Both are the children of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu. In a way, they represent the only Cajun Camelot still going strong in south Louisiana. For some, it's viewed as a benefit. For others, it's a whatever attribute. "What has that clout done for our state?" Kennedy asks.
As for Kennedy, he also hails from a political family, although smaller. His brother George is a highly-sought-after political consultant. Kennedy can also be linked to Jason Redmond, a well-liked political operative who serves as Kennedy's No. 2 in the Department of Treasury. Redmond ran Kennedy's campaigns in the old days but has been replaced this time by out-of-state consultants. If anything, it's an indication of how seriously national Republicans are taking this race.
In Landrieu's corner is mostly Louisiana talent, faces from bygone campaigns that are easily recognizable. The senator brought back Norma Jane Sabiston, her former chief of staff, to work this campaign. Sabiston's mother was Moon Landrieu's receptionist and the two became friends as teenagers. Both women have made their mark in the traditionally male world of Louisiana politics.
Of course, this race is about Kennedy and Landrieu, not necessarily the people around them. For all their differences, both candidates frame themselves as independent thinkers. "When I was a conservative Democrat, I was an outcast," Kennedy says. 'They always accused me of being a closet Republican, and now that I'm a Republican, I'm a closet Democrat?"
As for Landrieu, she says Louisiana voters "want an independent, effective voice in the U.S. Congress." She claims to be that voice, and with Louisiana losing so much seniority in the last two years (because of retirements and the impending trial of Rep. Bill Jefferson), her 12 years in the Senate and her seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee back up her claim.
Unlike Alcivar and Welsh, the candidates are pulling no punches. Each hopes to score a knockout, but that's unlikely. By the end of this fight, however, there's bound to be blood in the ring.