Roemer’s Mullings Scare La. Democrats

Posted April 9, 2004 at 4:39pm

The prospect of former Gov. Buddy Roemer (R) entering the already crowded Louisiana open-seat Senate race creates for the first time the potential for Democrats to be shut out of an all-but-certain runoff in the race to replace retiring Sen. John Breaux (D).

Roemer, a former Democrat who served three terms in the House and from 1987 to 1991 as the Pelican State’s governor, is still a well-known figure particularly in northern Louisiana, both Democratic and Republican strategists acknowledge.

Roemer would join Reps. David Vitter (R) and Chris John (D), state Treasurer John Kennedy (D) and state Rep. Arthur Morrell (D) in the contest. While he did not return a phone call seeking comment, he has said he plans to make an announcement about running this summer.

“Roemer’s entrance into the race ultimately impacts Democrats more,” argued an informed Washington Republican source, who asked: “Does Roemer prevent [Democrats] from getting in the runoff?”

A survey conducted by Louisiana-based pollster Verne Kennedy in early April showed Vitter at the head of the pack with 28 percent, followed by Roemer with 19 percent. Kennedy and John both received 17 percent, with Morrell taking 6 percent.

Even Democrats admit an all-Republican runoff could happen.

“That is a possibility,” acknowledged one Democratic Congressional aide with strong ties to the state.

Under Louisiana’s unique primary law, all candidates will run on the same ballot on Nov. 2; if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote, the two top candidates, regardless of party, advance to a Dec. 4 runoff.

“We know folks in D.C. look at Louisiana funny with our electoral system,” said John campaign manager Scott Arceneaux. “We are used to this kind of race and we have planned accordingly.”

Roemer’s rumored interest in the race to replace Sen. John Breaux (D) is simply the latest twist in what already has become one of the least predictable and most watched races in the country. It is also a contest critical to Democrats’ hopes of holding their own in the Senate.

The latest developments centered on Vitter’s personal life, as he has been forced to publicly repudiate rumors that he carried on a relationship with a prostitute.

Although the controversy surrounding these allegations, which Vitter has vehemently denied, has died down, the possibility of a Roemer candidacy could complicate the Louisiana Congressman’s dominance in primary polls to this point.

A Vitter campaign source dismissed the potential impact of Roemer, arguing that it is “way too late” for him to begin running since Vitter has locked up nearly every state and national Republican endorsement to be had.

“We are not giving it a second thought,” the Vitter source added.

The real action thus far in the race, however, has been on the Democratic side.

In the immediate aftermath of Breaux’s decision not to seek a fourth term, national Democrats made it very clear that they preferred John have a clear shot at Vitter in the fall.

John set out on an aggressive fundraising effort over the first three months of the year in a further attempt to dissuade would-be Democratic challengers.

He raised better than $1 million from Jan. 1 to March 31 and banked $2 million, a total touted by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in a news release.

Undaunted, Kennedy and Morrell entered the contest and vowed last week that they will remain in the race regardless of national pressures.

“This race will be decided in Louisiana, not in Washington, D.C.,” said Kennedy. “The experts will be wrong.” He added that he had raised $800,000 for the race through the first three months of the year.

Kennedy appears to be casting himself as more of a traditional Democrat than John, who has compiled one of the most conservative voting records in his party during his eight years in Congress.

“I am not going to be afraid to be a Democrat in this race,” Kennedy said.

Despite trailing both Vitter and Kennedy in the two most recent surveys in the race, Arceneaux expressed little concern about John’s standing in the race.

Arceneaux said the polling reflects the fact that both Vitter and Kennedy are much better-known statewide, a situation he insisted will be rectified over the course of the campaign.

“We feel very comfortable that once we get Chris’ message out his support will grow exponentially,” said Arceneaux. “Chris fits the mold of Louisiana.”

And, Arceneaux added, having Roemer in the race would negatively impact Kennedy while leaving John’s support essentially unscathed.

“They have run in the same circles for a long time and will pull from the same pool,” predicted Arceneaux, noting that Kennedy served as Roemer’s special counsel as well as his campaign manager for his unsuccessful 1995 gubernatorial race.

Neither Kennedy nor Morrell agreed with Arceneaux’s assessment.

“Any time someone of substance gets into a race the pie gets sliced a little thinner,” admitted Kennedy, adding that it was too early to speculate on Roemer’s potential impact.

“I am not going to change my strategy in the race,” he said.

Morrell, who officially joined the race on March 10, said that he “welcome[s] any competition.”

“It doesn’t matter whether there are one or 21 of them,” he added. “I am still going to make the race.”

National Democrats sought to draw a favorable comparison with the field in the 2003 Louisiana gubernatorial race and the current Senate landscape.

In the gubernatorial contest in 2003, four serious Democratic contenders and two Republicans made the race.

Former Health and Human Services official Bobby Jindal (R) led the field with 33 percent and then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco received 18 percent to advance to the runoff, which she won 52 percent to 48 percent.

All told, the four Democrats took 57 percent of the primary vote to 39 percent for the two Republicans.

“The election history in Louisiana clearly shows Democrats not only make the runoff, they win the general election,” said DSCC spokesman Cara Morris.