Queue Begins to Form for Melancon’s Open Seat

Few things create more interest in a potential candidate than when Republicans and Democratic operatives drop the same name when discussing recruitment prospects.

It happened last cycle in Alabama’s southeast 2nd district before now-Rep. Bobby Bright eventually decided to run as a Democrat, and it’s happening again in Louisiana’s 3rd district, where both parties are bracing for another open-seat showdown.

The district soared to the top of GOP target lists late last month after three-term Rep. Charlie Melancon (D) formally announced his plans to run for the Senate in 2010.

Now the man at the heart of much recruitment speculation is Scott Angelle, a Democrat who was named by Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal in late 2007 to serve as Louisiana’s secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. It’s his second stint at that post — he also served under former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Beyond his natural resource management credentials, Angelle has political chops.

The former St. Martin Parish president was tapped earlier this year by Jindal to serve as his legislative liaison.

“People think of him as governor material in the future,— said John Maginnis, who pens a weekly newsletter on Louisiana politics.

And while Maginnis said Angelle has earned the support of many Republicans through his work for Jindal, the Bayou State rising star certainly has a future in either party.

“He could either be the new [former Democratic Sen.] John Breaux or the new Republican star,— he said.

Angelle could not be reached for comment last week, but in the few public statements he’s made on the subject he’s been noncommittal about whether to run for the 3rd district seat and which party he would run with.

Republicans in Washington, D.C., and south Louisiana have been crowing about their chances in the conservative district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won with 61 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election. Democrats prefer to point to Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-La.) nearly 10-point margin of victory in the 3rd district last year.

The last time the 3rd district seat was open, Melancon beat the son of the district’s outgoing Congressman in the closest election of the 2004 cycle. In the open primary that year, Melancon took just 24 percent of the vote to Billy Tauzin III’s (R) 32 percent but ended up winning the runoff by 569 votes.

Regardless of which party he decided to run in, Angelle would have geographic and electoral issues to consider if he wants to replace Melancon.

While Angelle’s work with the Department of Natural Resources is known throughout the coastal district which has been battered by hurricanes in recent years, his base of support lies in the 3rd’s northwest corner in St. Martin Parish.

Candidates from a more centralized location would probably have an easier time introducing themselves across the 12,700-square-mile district that lies in the shadow of three of the state’s largest media markets.

Meanwhile, there are candidates being mentioned for the race who would start with a more centralized base. Democratic state Rep. Damon Baldone, who is term-limited out of his House seat at the end of his current term, represents parts of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

On the Republican side, Craig Webre, a five-term sheriff who told Maginnis he is considering the race, hails from Lafourche Parish.

Another issue Angelle would have to consider is Louisiana’s recently revamped primary system.

During the 2008 cycle, Louisiana held its first closed primaries in three decades. Before then, the November election served as an all-party primary day and runoffs took place in December.

Since Melancon went unopposed in 2008, the system had little impact on the 3rd district last year, but that will not be the case in 2010.

With the credentials he’s built in both parties, Angelle might have been the one candidate who would have fared better under the old system.

But party insiders say Angelle would still be a major player in either primary race.

Democratic state Rep. Fred Mills — a potential candidate who got a recruiting call from Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) last week — said his “dear friend— Angelle would certainly have the ability to clear the field.

Mills, who said he plans to make a final decision on the race sometime in the next month, said that if Angelle decided to run, “I wouldn’t even consider it,— even if Angelle ran as a Republican.

Meanwhile, one Louisiana Republican source said last week that despite Angelle’s current political affiliation, there are ways to ensure he wouldn’t have too much trouble in a GOP primary.

“He’s working for Bobby right now, and if Bobby says he’s the Republican candidate for the job then Republican voters and the state party will back him,— the source said.

Of course whether Jindal would expend his political capital in a 3rd district primary is another matter.

While no Republicans — or Democrats — have officially announced for the open-seat race yet, state Rep. Nickie Monica (R) appears to be all but in.

Monica was talking up GOP chances for taking back the conservative district even before it became clear that Melancon was running for the Senate and he met with the National Republican Congressional Committee about challenging the Congressman.

The other factor that any potential 3rd district candidate will have to consider before jumping into the race is the fact that he may be applying for a short-term gig.

Louisiana is widely expected to lose a seat in the Congressional reapportionment process following next year’s census and, the 3rd district could well be on the chopping block.

The 3rd district’s Congressman will be low on the seniority scale come 2011, and one conservative group in the state has already released an early redistricting map that proposes eliminating the 3rd district by combining it with the majority-black 2nd district.

“It’s something that’s definitely in my mind and it’s in the mind of supporters out there,— said Democratic state Rep. Gary Smith, who is also contemplating a bid and is in his final term in the state House. “That’s one of the reasons we need a good strong person to take that seat, so that we can make sure we have representation here. ... We want to fight to make sure there is a seat here to still run in.—

Smith said he’s hopeful Democrats can avoid a contentious primary as they look ahead to 2010.

“Hopefully as a Democratic body we can sit down and promote one strong candidate,— he said.

Two other Democrats who have been mentioned for the race are attorney Ravi Sangisetty and Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley.

A few other Republican names being floated for the 3rd district race are former state Speaker Hunt Downer, who is the assistant adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser Jr., whose father is the former chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, and 2007 state Senate candidate Jeff Landry.

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