Louisiana Lightning

Political Climate May Change Quickly Before ’07, ’08 Voting

Posted March 14, 2007 at 6:36pm

New Orleans’ massive population loss usually has Democrats singing the blues, but in a state whose political environment may be changing rapidly, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees Louisiana as a land of opportunity in 2008.

Part of their game plan, however, may rest on popular former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), rather than embattled incumbent Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), carrying the Democratic banner in this year’s gubernatorial election.

Democratic officials believe that demographic changes in one of the South’s few remaining competitive states — for instance, many former New Orleans residents now live in Baton Rouge and Shreveport — could put Rep. Richard Baker’s (R-La.) seat within their reach.

“Baker is definitely on our radar screen,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said. “We believe whether Baker runs for governor, Senate or seeks re-election, we believe he’s vulnerable.”

Baker’s 6th district is based in Baton Rouge, which swelled from 225,000 residents before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005 to somewhere between 275,000 and 325,000 today, according to local officials.

The DCCC also is casting a glance at Rep. Jim McCrery (R) in the 4th district.

Neither district seems like particularly fertile ground for Democrats on paper — President Bush carried both districts with 59 percent of the 2004 presidential vote — but a lot has changed since then.

Shreveport just elected a black Democratic mayor in November, Democrats are quick to note.

McCrery represents a big chunk of the Pelican State’s western side in a district that extends from Northern Shreveport almost to Lake Charles.

Former Rep. Chris John (D-La.), who lost a 2004 bid for Senate, said he thinks Democrats can not only rebound but can even make gains in his home state.

“The DCCC has hit the ground running,” John said. “I was called [for advice] five weeks after the [midterm] election by the DCCC recruitment committee.”

John said committee officials are “just trying to get a real lay of the land … just trying to get a real macro-picture with what they’re dealing with.”

He also said that Rep. Rodney Alexander (R) always has to consider himself a target given that he switched parties just before the state’s filing deadline in 2004.

But National Republican Congressional Committee officials say they, not the DCCC, will be on offense in the Creole State next year.

“The Democrats are delusional if they are looking toward Louisiana to make gains in the next cycle,” said Julie Shutley, an NRCC spokeswoman. “We actually believe the governor’s race brings GOP opportunity to the state. Our presidential candidate will carry the state and as a result, someone like [Rep.] Charlie Melancon (D) will have a real race on his hands.”

The DCCC is also keeping close watch on this year’s gubernatorial contest. But the dynamic of the race could change in a matter of weeks.

Blanco, whose job-approval rating bottomed out during the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, says she will seek another term. Rep. Bobby Jindal (R), who lost narrowly to Blanco in 2003, is running hard to defeat her.

But Breaux has thrown an interesting twist into Louisiana’s never-dull political scene by weighing a gubernatorial bid. He has promised a decision within the next few weeks.

Some pundits believe Blanco will step aside if Breaux gets in and that Jindal will pull the plug and bide his time until 2008, when he could challenge Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who never wins by wide margins.

Under that scenario, the gubernatorial race could be a boon for Democrats, while the Senate race would become more perilous.

The gubernatorial race is key as reapportionment will follow the 2010 Census, and Louisiana may lose a Congressional seat, John said.

“A Democratic governor … could be an enormous help to solidifying the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill and in making Louisiana Democratic,” he said.

But Thornell said reapportionment is just one reason why the DCCC is watching the gubernatorial race so closely.

“It helps with rebuilding the party, with recruitment of candidates; it helps with energizing the Democrats in the state,” Thornell said. “It’s important that Louisiana have a Democratic governor for a number of other reasons than redistricting.”

But as of now, Blanco seems determined to salvage her reputation and win another term, while Jindal is not publicly considering a switch to a Senate race.

“I wanted to let you know that one thing is set in stone; I am running for governor,” Jindal wrote recently on his campaign Web site. “I am ready and excited about winning a vigorous campaign against any and all challengers, whether it be the incumbent governor, former Sen. John Breaux should he move back to Louisiana and attempt to prove in court that he meets the state Constitutional requirements, or even [Sen.] Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) should she decide to renounce her New York residency and move here to run.”

Jindal questions whether Breaux, now a Washington, D.C., lobbyist registered to vote in Maryland, can even run for office in the Pelican State.

John Hill, a Shreveport political columnist, has already opined that a judge would likely consider Breaux’s ownership of land in Louisiana, and subsequent tax payments, would qualify him if Jindal or someone else took the case to court.

Thornell said voter registration will kick into gear this year as well, which can help Democratic House candidates and Landrieu next year.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been wooing Baker to take on Landrieu, yet it released a poll last week that tested Baker, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) and Jindal against the scion of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu. The committee only released head-to-head results for Jindal and Landrieu, however, and Jindal had a substantial lead.

NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher said Jindal was named in the poll to prove a point about Landrieu’s shaky political standing.

“Jindal’s inclusion in this poll illustrates her vulnerability against any Republican with statewide name ID,” she said.

Trey Williams, Jindal’s Capitol Hill spokesman, also discounted the significance of the NRSC poll.

“We’re honored by the support we’re shown in the poll and throughout the state,” Williams said. “But the bottom line is that Bobby is running for governor, period and nothing else.”

Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Jindal’s inclusion demonstrates the NRSC’s inability to find someone to run against Landrieu, despite her being a top NRSC target.

“I think it shows how desperate their recruiting effort has become that they are polling someone who actually is running in an entirely different race,” Miller said. “Two of their targets have already said they wouldn’t run and a third won’t give a commitment.”

Miller was referring to McCrery and Boustany, both of whom have said they will not run for Senate, and Baker, who has not made a decision. Shutley said the NRCC would like to see Baker run for re-election.

“We would of course like Rep. Baker to stay in the House as long as possible, he has repeatedly proven he knows how to win,” Shutley said. “But, if he decides to run for a higher office, we are confident this seat will stay in the red column.”

As for the possibility of dropping Jindal into the Senate race should he lose the gubernatorial race this November, Miller called that hypothetical absurd.

“Can they really afford to wait that long to find a candidate?” Miller said.