The 'Seinfeld' Factor

Despite millions of dollars spent by Republicans and Democrats, Louisiana's most recent election cycle came down to a lot of nothing -- no issues, no big ideas.



In Shreveport, voters were peppered with campaign commercials suggesting Congressman Jim McCrery, a Republican, was responsible for all the illegal immigrants storming the country. The secretary of state's race came down to images of an overweight superhero. Candidates running for Congress in southeast Louisiana, meanwhile, fought over frozen money -- literally -- and alliances with Nancy Pelosi, the überliberal congresswoman from California.

These are just a few of the issues voters may remember when the 2006 election cycle is recalled -- if one can call them issues. Noticeably absent from the September and November elections were public discussions on health care, insurance, energy, small business assistance and crime, which raises a series of questions: Is there a "Seinfeld" factor taking hold of Louisiana politics? Is the electorate just fine and dandy with nothingness?

Bob Mann, who formerly served as communications director for Gov. Kathleen Blanco before taking a chair at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communications, has noticed a void when it comes to the issues, but only in Louisiana. In June and July, Mann says he tracked the communications of congressional campaigns around the country and found candidates pushing health care and other issues of regional importance.

Then, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, despite his 18 years in the Upper Chamber, lost the Democratic primary and began campaigning as an independent focusing on the war in Iraq. Lieberman's message resonated with voters, and pols around the country took notice. "Everyone picked up the war then," Mann says. Only the page scandal buffered that national debate and knocked the issue off front pages.

In Louisiana, things were different. Here it was football, festivals and speckled trout that garnered the attention of voters -- along with the occasional attack ad. Mann says that's largely because congressional races in Lafayette, Shreveport, Baton Rouge, Metairie and central Louisiana were just plain dull. Furthermore, the two races that were heated -- in the coastal parishes and in New Orleans -- focused on character assassinations rather than platforms.

Voters may have to wait until 2007 to get back on target with Louisiana issues. All 105 legislative seats will be up for grabs, as will the state's top job and other statewide offices. "Next year's governor's race will be about the recovery, and it's going to get dirty," Mann says.

In some respects, dirty campaigning, loosely referred to as "going negative," has taken the place of issue papers, Mann says. Additionally, the press hasn't been doing a good job of generating opposition research on its own -- meaning digging deep to find dirt on candidates -- so campaigns are forced to float that kind of information. And all of this, he adds, is perfectly normal and acceptable. "A campaign without negative campaigning is not a campaign," Mann says.

With last year's hurricanes still fresh in the minds of voters -- in some cases, frighteningly so -- this election cycle appeared ripe for issues-oriented campaigning, says Dr. Albert Samuels, a professor of political science at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Still, that hasn't happened yet on a large scale. What's more shocking is the amount of money spent during this election cycle to discuss nothing of significance. "This could be a watershed moment," Samuels says.

In the Third Congressional District, which stretches from Iberia Parish to the watery reaches of St. Bernard Parish, Congressman Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville, and state Sen. Craig Romero, a New Iberia Republican, spent nearly $4 million to sway voters -- and that total may grow once updated financial reports are filed. In 2004, when there were about three times as many serious candidates fighting over the seat, only $4.8 million was spent.

In New Orleans' Second Congressional District, where Democratic Congressman William Jefferson is still reeling from an ongoing federal investigation, a field of 13 candidates spent about $1.5 million. Jefferson's opponent in the December runoff will be state Rep. Karen Carter, also a Democrat, and many more dollars will surely be spent. Prior to this year, the spending threshold in the Second District rarely surpassed $1.1 million.

Spending millions to talk about nothing may be the newest fad, Samuels says. The political landscape, however, is still shifting in the wake of Katrina and Rita. Once legislative races and statewide contests run their course next year, voters will get to see what Louisiana politics have really become post-Katrina.

Whether it will be more issues and less "yada yada yada" is anyone's guess. "It might not be better, but it'll be different," says Samuels.

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