New Fletcher Bid Irks Some in GOP

Posted March 7, 2003 at 6:23pm

Just four months after a shocking loss in the first December runoff in Louisiana history, Lee Fletcher (R) is contemplating a rematch with Rep. Rodney Alexander (D) in the 5th district in 2004.

Fletcher has sent out a fundraising letter designed to erase his campaign debt and gauge interest in his potential candidacy.

“I am going to test the waters and see what level of support is out there,” he said. “I am encouraged by my showing in the last run.”

Fletcher’s defeat and the subsequent finger-pointing between the state and national GOP has left some Republicans dubious about a second Fletcher bid.

“Lee Fletcher is a deeply flawed candidate who ran a terrible race, and should he be the nominee he makes it difficult to win back the seat,” said a Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Committee, was quick to pile on.

“If Fletcher was really serious about running he shouldn’t have alienated his major fundraising base [at the NRCC],” she said.

Nevertheless, Fletcher is making career decisions that seem to point to another run. He has started The Fletcher Group, a media and marketing firm aimed at helping small-business clients. He also hosts a current events program — “The Lee Fletcher Morning Show” — that airs district-wide from 6 to 8 a.m. weekdays on KMLB Radio.

In addition, he has founded the Louisiana Leadership Network, an organization, in Fletcher’s words, to “train young leaders” and “convince business people to run for office.”

Recently, Fletcher sent a mailing to his past contributors asking them three questions: “Should I run again?”; “If I did would I have your support?”; and “Can you help me with the campaign debt?”

Fletcher ended the year with nearly $275,000 in arrears; $268,000 was money he loaned to his campaign. He said the response to the mailing has given him“100 percent” support for a second run.

After placing a strong second to Alexander in the Nov. 5 open primary, Fletcher was widely expected to win the Republican-leaning, northeastern Louisiana district that had been held by Rep. John Cooksey (R) since 1996. Fletcher served as Cooksey’s chief of staff from 1996 until 2001.

But he struggled to consolidate the 42 percent of the primary vote received by former Rep. Clyde Holloway (R) and state Sen. Robert Barham (R), and lost to Alexander by 974 votes of the more than 160,000 cast. Neither Republican endorsed him, and Holloway severely damaged Fletcher’s campaign by publicly declaring that “[Fletcher] will do anything to win and he scares me.” These comments were prominently featured in Alexander’s television ads.

Holloway’s animosity sprung from his belief that Fletcher sponsored negative phone calls during the primary attacking Holloway’s supposed votes against Social Security during his six-year tenure in the House.

Fletcher denied the charges, and Cooksey maintained that the calls were paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC refused to confirm or deny the allegation at the time.

Holloway, who is also considering another run for the seat, is still clearly irked by Fletcher.

“Everybody has a right to run, but I think he had his best opportunity to win last time,” he said. “I am sure he is going to try but he is not going to have the financial support that he had before.”

Holloway believes that had he made the runoff “we would have won the race easily.”

Fletcher said that he has learned his lesson from the 2002 race and denied that there is any lingering ill will between him and the NRCC.

“The thing that was very clear in the last election was that I managed my own race in the primary,” Fletcher said. “When it got into the runoff it was driven by both national parties more so than local folks would have liked.”

Fletcher said that if he runs again, he will only air positive ads because “it works for me. It’s more of who and what my personality is.”

He is quick to note, however, that negative comments about the NRCC came from Cooksey, not him.

“Dr. Cooksey decided to go on a rampage,” Fletcher said. “He went on the rampage because he felt the tone of the campaign was something that turned a marginal number of voters against me.”

Despite the tensions, Fletcher said he “supports the NRCC and always has.”

Steve Schmidt, communications director at the committee, was slightly less effusive.

“The NRCC is in the business of encouraging people to run for Congress,” he said. “We would wish Lee Fletcher well in his bid.”

Whether or nor Fletcher runs, Alexander will be a prime target for national Republicans. The district gave President Bush his second strongest showing (56 percent) in the state during the 2000 presidential election, and in the tightly fought 1996 Senate race, conservative former state Rep. Woody Jenkins took 53 percent.

“Rodney Alexander is among the Democrats’ most vulnerable freshman Members,” Schmidt said.

Ellis Brachman, Alexander’s spokesman, said the fact that the NRCC covets the district comes as no surprise.

“Congressman Alexander won knowing he would be a target,” he said.