Rep. Bill Cassidy could have company soon in the GOP race to challenge Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu.
Former Rep. Jeff Landry, a favorite of local tea party conservatives, left the door open to running in an interview with CQ Roll Call this week. Landry said he has been traveling around the state meeting with voters and will have an announcement next week on something that “may have the ability to play in this race.”
“I never like to let people open their presents until Christmas Day,” teased Landry,who declined to elaborate.
Cassidy’s entrance into the Louisiana Senate race this week kicked off one of the GOP’s most critical contests of the cycle. Senate Republicans must net six seats to win the majority in 2014, and Landrieu is one of several Democratic incumbents running in states that the president lost.
The ideal scenario for national Republicans is a two-person race between Cassidy and Landrieu. While that might be the case on Election Day, other Republicans remain interested in the race despite Cassidy’s candidacy.
In addition to Landry, Rep. John Fleming confirmed his continued interest.
“I haven’t ruled anything out,” Fleming said in a statement this week. “The polling I’ve done has made it clear that a conservative Republican can defeat Mary Landrieu. So, whether it’s Bill or I, the critical issue is that Louisianians have a distinct choice.”
A Fleming bid would exacerbate existing tensions between two of Louisiana’s top Republicans, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sen. David Vitter, according to Bob Mann, director of the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at Louisiana State University.
Mann pointed out that Vitter’s communications director, Joel DiGrado, left to run Cassidy’s campaign this week. He also noted Cassidy adviser Timmy Teepell, who previously served as Jindal’s chief of staff, left Cassidy’s staff earlier this year.
“While it doesn’t necessarily mean that Vitter is endorsing Cassidy, it’s a pretty good indication that that’s where Vitter could lean,” Mann said. “Which could mean that Jindal and his people could take their business elsewhere and could get behind Fleming.”
Vitter has left the door wide open to endorsing a candidate.
“My position in that race is and will remain that I will support the dominant Republican challenger to Mary as soon as that is clearly decided,” Vitter said in a statement.
Teepell did not immediately return a request for comment.
What’s more, a GOP nomination battle could damage the party’s chances of picking up the seat. The battle could drag on until Election Day, thanks to the state’s unique ballot system.
In Louisiana, every candidate, Democrat or Republican, runs on the same ballot on Election Day. If no candidate receives a simple majority in the all-party primary, the top-two vote-getters continue to a runoff in December.
Operatives from both sides of the aisle say that setup could lead to a bruising race for the GOP. If more than one serious Republican candidate emerges, GOP candidates will be attacking each other — instead of Landrieu — until early November.
Fortunately for Republicans, two of the state’s other prominent Republicans, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, have already said they won’t run for the seat.
Democrats have been quick to label Cassidy as an extremist.
“Bill Cassidy knows his only hope is to run a Jindalesque campaign of smoke and mirrors,” Louisiana Democratic Party Executive Director Stephen Handwerk said in a statement. “His rhetoric is as empty as his record.”
And Democratic operatives warn Landrieu’s ability to ward off challengers cannot be overlooked. The three-term senator was first elected in 1996 with 50 percent of the vote, and she survived two re-elections with 51 percent and 52 percent, respectively.
“They all think that they’ve got her, and it hasn’t happened yet,” said Democratic strategist Bradley Beychok, who has worked in Louisiana politics. “She knows what she’s facing. She’s ready for war, and she’s not scared.”