Louisiana Senate/Congress Election Notebook

Since last week’s qualifying established the fields for Louisiana’s statewide and local races this fall, the last few days have been relatively quiet on the state’s campaign scene.

Quiet, perhaps, but not silent.

CAO CHALLENGER PULLS OUT: Louisiana 2nd District Republicans had a choice in the Aug. 28 primary before yesterday, and now they don’t. Incumbent Joseph Cao was faced with a challenger, Norman Paul Billiot, but the sales rep from Marrero said he didn’t have the campaign cash to make a real run at the race and begged off of a run.

That’s good news of sorts for Cao, who probably wouldn’t have had much trouble beating Billiot. But what Cao really needs in order to hold his seat is a strong independent in the race to siphon African-American support away from the Democrat nominee – most likely either state rep Cedric Richmond or state rep Juan LaFonta, both of New Orleans. Community activist Gary Johnson is also running on the Democrat side. There are three independents in the race – Ron Austin of Harvey, Rev. Anthony Marquize of Violet, and Pastor Jack Radosta of New Orleans. None of them look like they’re going to be able to split the back vote, meaning Cao’s re-election is an uphill fight.

LANDRY BOASTS BIG WAR CHEST: In the 3rd District, Republican Jeff Landry announced today that he’s sitting on a sizable pile of cash in his race against former Louisiana House Speaker and National Guard Maj. Gen. Hunt Downer and upstart Kristian Magar. Landry’s campaign raised nearly $200,000 over the last three months in the 2nd quarter and he declared receipts totaling nearly $500,000 since the race began. Landry also says he’s holding better than $400,000 in cash on hand, which makes his probably the best-capitalized campaign in the race at present.

Downer’s campaign had put out a release last week claiming that since his May 20 fundraising launch he’s pulled in $274,500, which at the time represented about $7,000 per day and $50,000 per week. No figures were as yet available on what Downer’s cash on hand looks like.

DEMOCRAT LT. GOV. FIELD NARROWS: St. Tammany Parish Councilman Ken Burkhalter pulled out of the Lieutenant Governor’s race Monday, only shortly after qualifying on Friday.

Why the quick change of mind?

Well, Burkhalter qualified for the race thinking that no Democrats were going to get in it. But as a member of the state’s Democrat central committee, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher that he wasn’t aware term-limited state senator Butch Gautreaux (D-Morgan City) was getting in.

New Orleans lawyer Caroline Fayard and James Crowley, a Shreveport resident who runs for pretty much everything, are also in the race. But the smart money says this contest will really be fought among the Republicans in the field – Secretary of State Jay Dardenne is expected to be the leader, while 2007 runner-up candidate and country singer Sammy Kershaw and Louisiana GOP chair Roger Villere are the most likely candidates to secure a spot in the runoff. St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis is also in the race, though Davis is grotesquely unpopular among Northshore conservatives after endorsing Mary Landrieu’s senatorial re-election campaign in 2008 (among other things) and one wonders where Davis’ support would come from.

VITTER/MELANCON RACE CROWDED: There were lots of rumors prior to qualifying which had it that Gov. Bobby Jindal would be jumping into the Republican primary in the U.S Senate race, and those didn’t pan out. But incumbent David Vitter didn’t escape completely unscathed, as he has a somewhat credible Republican opponent in retired state Supreme Court justice Chet Traylor. The Caldwell Parish native said he entered the race with the backing of some of Louisiana’s conservative businessmen largely due to the kerfuffle over former Vitter aide Brett Furer’s legal issues, but as the Ouachita Citizen reports Traylor was looking to run as far back as last year, with those plans being scuttled at the time due to his wife passing away. Traylor said “…I want Louisiana to have a Republican senator,” Traylor continued. “Louisiana deserves a better conservative.”

The basis for the challenge essentially will be that the Furer issue, together with Vitter’s past indiscretions and admission in 2007 of an association with a 2001 scandal involving a D.C. madam, make him vulnerable in the general election against Democrat Charlie Melancon, who faces a primary field of his own in Neeson Chauvin and Cary Deaton. Polling data doesn’t really show such concerns have a great deal of validity at present, as the most recent Rasmussen survey had Vitter besting Melancon by a 53-35 count. If the Furer issue gains traction, that lead could melt down a little, but on the other hand Melancon is facing a black eye of his own thanks to a weekend fundraising trip to Vancouver to collect campaign cash from trial lawyers. Melancon was one of 12 Democrat Senate candidates, all of whom (save Charlie, his campaign would likely argue) with reputations as being very far left and all but one either behind or tied in the polls. If he was to gain ground on Vitter, this wouldn’t be the way to do it.

To make things a little more difficult for the Senator, state rep Ernest Wooton, a Republican, qualified Friday as an independent. Wooton has a reputation for being a bit unconventional, to put it mildly, and the former sheriff of St. Bernard Parish could burnish that image with a wild card candidacy. Wooton can’t win, as he’ll have only limited appeal to the New Orleans suburbs, but as a Republican the conventional wisdom might be that he would hurt Vitter. But as St. Bernard is in the 3rd Congressional District Wooton’s constituency is also Melancon’s – so it’s possible that he would draw some independents and Democrats away from the challenger. With Vitter holding a current 53 percent, if the polls are accurate, Melancon would need Wooton’s effect to be almost completely restricted to Vitter’s vote. That doesn’t appear likely.

In short, in handicapping the Senate race what looks likely is that Vitter simply needs the race to continue to be about policy – taxes, the drilling moratorium, the federal government’s poor response to the Gulf oil spill, Obamacare and other extremely unpopular emanations out of Washington, while holding himself out as the best-poised candidate to put a stop to what’s happening in DC. If he can do that, the $5.5 million he has on hand should carry the day for him.

But if Vitter’s opponents can make the race center around dirt on the incumbent, things might become a bit more interesting.

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