DSCC Tries To Clear La. Field for John

Posted January 9, 2004 at 6:03pm

Senate Democrats are working to clear the field for Rep. Chris John (D) in the race to replace retiring Louisiana Sen. John Breaux (D), according to party officials.

“Senator [Jon] Corzine [N.J.] and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have given the strongest possible message to the Democratic Party in Louisiana that we want to avoid a two- or three-way primary,” said DSCC spokeswoman Cara Morris.

However, at least one other potential Democratic candidate — Shaw Group founder Jim Bernhard — appears to be growing more interested in the race and has contacted several people about possibly managing his campaign, said one Capitol Hill insider.

Bernhard has also spoken to Mike Mann, who was a consultant on the 2003 gubernatorial campaign of outgoing state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub (D), about serving in a similar capacity.

Ieyoub has been mentioned as a potential Senate candidate but is not likely to run. Ieyoub and Bernhard are close friends, and Bernhard was the co-chairman of Ieyoub’s gubernatorial run.

State Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell (D) and state Treasurer John Kennedy (D) are looking at the race, but neither is expected to run.

Rep. David Vitter is the only Republican in the race.

Under Louisiana election law, all candidates will run in an open primary on Nov. 2. If no candidate is able to win 50 percent of the vote then, the top two votegetters regardless of party will advance to a December runoff.

For his part, John, a four-term lawmaker from southwestern Louisiana, said he has spoken to all of the other Democrats considering the race, arguing that a multiple-candidate field could strengthen Vitter’s chances of winning.

“We have some very vivid recent history of what happens in a race when Republicans get a candidate and we have several high-profile, well-financed candidates with name identification,” said John, referring to the 2003 gubernatorial race.

In that race, four well-regarded Democratic candidates ran in the October open primary against two Republicans. The Democratic vote was splintered, forcing a runoff between one GOPer and one Democrat. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) eventually won a narrow victory.

John called the gubernatorial election a “case study on how we can tear ourselves apart.”

Moving quickly, John formed an exploratory committee last week to raise money for the race and pulled something of a coup by naming Scott Arceneaux as the group’s chairman.

Arceneaux resigned his position as executive director of the state Democratic Party to take his post with John, and sources familiar with the effort indicated that Arceneaux will become John’s campaign manager.

John’s attempts to clear the field are bolstered by his close relationship with Breaux, who has long touted the Congressman as the heir to his Senate seat.

Two weeks before his Dec. 15 retirement announcement, Breaux mentioned John as a likely candidate on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

Both John and Breaux hail from Crowley, a small town on the Interstate 10 corridor that is also the hometown of former Gov. Edwin Edwards (D).

John was elected in 1996 to the same House seat Breaux held from 1972 to 1986, when he left to run for the Senate.

While most state Democratic observers say Breaux has made it clear that he believes the Congressman is the strongest general election candidate against Vitter, John himself said he does not expect an endorsement.

“John [Breaux] and I worked together very closely, but I have my own record in the House,” he said.

But John added that voters looking for a sense of “who Chris John will be if he runs and wins in the Senate” need only look at Breaux’s record of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

During his four terms in the House, John has taken a leadership role with the Blue Dog Coalition — a group of moderate to conservative Democrats.

Bernhard’s interest in the race could be problematic for John, since the Louisiana businessman would have the ability to spend significant personal funds on the race.

Bernhard is the founder, president and CEO of The Shaw Group, one of only two Fortune 500 companies based in Louisiana. He did not return a call seeking comment.

The company, which specializes in pipe fabrication, had revenues of $2.7 billion in 2002 and employs 7,500 people in Louisiana.

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, state and national Republicans have already coalesced behind Vitter as their nominee.

Vitter has been talked about as a statewide candidate since he won a 1999 special election to replace Rep. Bob Livingston (R) in the 1st district.

Vitter was seen as the frontrunner in the 2003 gubernatorial race but dropped out unexpectedly in May 2002, saying he needed to spend more time with his family.

He refused to speculate about whether having more than one credible Democrat in the Senate race would help or hurt him.

“I’ve heard arguments on that all sorts of different ways,” he said Friday. “I am a firm believer on focusing on the things you can control. I am not worrying about those political calculations.”

Louisiana is one of five Southern open seats that Senate Democrats must defend in 2004, along with North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Republicans have two open seats to defend in Illinois and Oklahoma.

Few incumbents for either party are endangered.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) faces a difficult race against former two-term Gov. Tony Knowles (D), while Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is in a nip-and-tuck affair with former Rep. John Thune (R).