Race for Baker’s Seat Will Happen Soon

Posted January 16, 2008 at 6:32pm

Former Louisiana state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R), who took Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to a runoff in her first Senate race in 1996, said Wednesday that he likely will run for the House seat being vacated soon by his friend and former state legislative colleague, Rep. Richard Baker (R).

It is expected that the special election to replace Baker in the 6th district will take place in May, at the same time that Pelican State voters in the 1st district head to the polls to pick a successor to former Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), who was sworn in as governor earlier this week.

“I’m thinking I’m probably going to run,” said Jenkins, who spent most of his 28 years in the Legislature as a Democrat before switching to the Republican Party in 1994. Jenkins said he expects to make an official announcement today.

“I think working on opening up the process and having a less partisan approach to things is going to be one of my priorities if I run and if I’m elected,” he said.

Although Jenkins has been out of the Legislature for eight years, one Louisiana Republican official said he would enter the race with the highest name recognition.

Jenkins, who now works as an editor for a group of newspapers in and around Baton Rouge, said he has commissioned a poll in recent days that shows his name recognition well ahead of state Rep. Don Cazayoux, the Democratic candidate who already had entered the race before Baker’s retirement.

Only about half of Cazayoux’s state House district — with its 25,000 registered voters — falls within the 6th Congressional district. But state and national Democratic officials have coalesced behind Cazayoux’s campaign since he announced last week.

“Woody’s name recognition is not as high as everybody thinks,” said Danny Ford, executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. “Baton Rouge has grown and changed so much since he last ran. … It’s not a cakewalk, it’s going to be a tough fight, but I think we’ve got a better than average chance.”

At a time when state newspapers and Louisiana elected officials have made much about the Bayou State losing its seniority on Capitol Hill, Jenkins’ age, 61, could be a factor in the coming special election.

Jenkins addressed those concerns, noting that he is in good health and pointing out that younger candidates often have higher aspirations as they calculate their political futures.

“The tendency is to want to run for governor or U.S. Senate, which is exactly what we don’t need right now,” Jenkins said. “People ought not to use Congress as a steppingstone. We need people for that particular office to stay there and to serve and build up seniority … [and] the influence that would come over time.”

Jenkins’ comments on Wednesday came as Republicans continued to scramble to find a candidate in the Republican-leaning 6th district, where it was assumed that Baker would cruise to a 12th term in November until the Congressman revealed earlier this month that he was seeking the top job at the Managed Funds Association, a hedge fund industry trade association.

President Bush won the 6th district with 59 percent of the vote in the 2004 election and 55 percent in 2000. In 2006, with no Democratic opposition, Baker was re-elected with 83 percent of the vote.

State Rep. Hunter Greene (R) said Wednesday that he is seriously considering the race and plans to meet with National Republican Congressional Committee officials when he is in Washington, D.C., next week.

Baton Rouge City Councilman David Boneno (R) also has been said to be eyeing Baker’s seat. Baker’s former chief of staff, Paul Sawyer (R), also has expressed interest in the job.

Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne (R) has recommended that Jindal, who was installed as the state’s chief executive this week, schedule the Baker special election during the same time frame that former Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) laid out to fill Jindal’s vacant House seat.

Under that schedule, candidates will have until Jan. 31 to qualify for the special election before the Democratic and Republican parties hold their first closed primaries in more than three decades on March 8. If a runoff is necessary, it will be held on April 5 with the general election taking place on May 3. If neither party needs a runoff, the general election would be moved up to April 5.

Since the late 1970s, Louisiana voters have selected their Congressional candidates in open primaries. But after a series of legal challenges over the years, state lawmakers ended the open primary system last year for U.S. House and Senate races.

Now only Republicans will be able to vote in the Republican primary, while Democrats and voters with no official party affiliation will be able to cast ballots in the Democratic primary.

Some state political observers have predicted a rocky transition period this year.

“We’re all learning the system, and it’s going to be a matter of who you target and the campaigns are going to be working through those kind of issues,” said Jason Dore, political director for the Louisiana Republican Party.

Dore said that, over the long term, the new Congressional primary system is likely to grow the Republican Party in the state because a significant number of Louisiana voters come from families that have historically registered as Democrats but vote today for Republicans.

“As a party … we kind of have to target all the Democrats because so many of them vote for us and there’s a lot of waste going on there,” Dore said. “I think in the long term more than anything else this closed primary system will help us identify who are our voters and help us to connect with them early on as opposed to sending out direct mail and phone calls to every Democrat in the state.”

Ford said the new primary system will help to avoid wasting party resources. He added that Democrats will benefit from the long run from allowing nonaffiliated voters to participate in their primary.

“For independents it’s a targeting issue,” Ford said. “If somebody is voting Democrat in the primary, they are more likely to be voting for a Democrat in the general.”