Scalise Senses Win After All These Years

Posted March 4, 2008 at 6:34pm

There’s a reason Democrats aren’t expecting much to come out of Louisiana’s 1st district special election, and it’s the same reason that Republicans never seriously consider making a run at the New Orleans-based 2nd district right next door.

Barring a miracle, the Republican winner of Saturday’s primary election should cruise to victory, and not even the turnout uncertainty that comes with any special election is going to change that.

“It’s one of the more affluent white areas in Louisiana, and it’s got to be in the top 25 in the United States for being a solid lock for Republicans,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a pollster with the nonpartisan Southern Media & Opinion Research.

In this 80 percent white district, almost three out of four voters chose President Bush in the 2004 election.

“If a Republican has a pulse and is breathing on Election Day, he’ll win,” Pinsonat added.

This weekend, voters will have four GOP pulses to choose from as they go to pick a successor to now-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), but the strongest appears to be state Sen. Steve Scalise. If he exceeds 50 percent of the vote Saturday, he will avoid a runoff.

Alhough the special election race began with Jindal’s election to the governor’s mansion last October, Scalise really has been running for this seat for about 10 years.

As a freshman state House Member in 1999, Scalise threw his hat into the ring when former Rep. Bob Livingston (R) hastily announced his retirement from Congress. But when two more senior Republicans — including now-Sen. David Vitter — made it clear they were interested in the seat, Scalise stepped aside. Vitter won.

After Vitter’s election to the Senate, Scalise stepped forward to run for the seat in 2004, only again to step back when the the state’s GOP rising star, Jindal, said he would seek the 1st district seat.

Even last year, when Scalise was running for state Senate, “he didn’t even back down … about what his intentions were. He told people he was going to run for Congress,” said Jefferson Parish Republican Party Chairman Bob DeViney, a family friend of Scalise.

So this time around there’s a sense among many Republican voters and party leaders that Scalise has paid his dues, DeViney said.

“It was manly of him when he started to run [in 2004] and when Jindal got into that race he said, ‘I’ll get out and let you have it.’ I guess there are some down there … that feel like they owe it him, but I wouldn’t want to use that term,” said Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), who has endorsed Scalise. “I don’t think anybody is owed anything, but he is very capable … he’s certainly qualified to take over in Bobby Jindal’s Congressional district.”

“He has the backing of some of the bigger Republican money types,” Pinsonat said. “They have kept their word and made him the leading candidate, primarily on the basis of a lot of money.”

As of mid-February Scalise had $250,000 more in his campaign war chest than his closest competitor, according to Federal Election Commission reports. And that figure came out before the House Conservatives Fund announced that it was supporting the state Senator. In just the past week, Scalise’s campaign received contributions from Alexander and Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.).

Scalise also has been able to tap Livingston, now a top D.C. lobbyist, to serve as the honorary chairman of his campaign. And in a district where the more conservative the candidate the better, Scalise also touts the endorsement of the Club for Growth and the National Rifle Association.

“It would surprise a lot of us if it goes to a runoff,” Pinsonat said.

But a two-way runoff in April is exactly what state Rep. Tim Burns said he is playing for right now.

Burns, the only other Republican in the special election to have gone on air with ads, said Tuesday that his campaign has conducted internal polling that shows him in second place behind Scalise, and that’s not necessarily a bad place to be right now.

“It’s like the playoffs — you just try to make it into the next round,” Burns said Tuesday.

As for the support Scalise has received from the GOP establishment, Burns said, “You’re not going to have Congressmen from outside the area or former Congressmen choose this seat. They are all good men … and their ability to raise money has an impact, but I don’t know if they can directly impact votes. … The Republican establishment is not going to decide this election.”

In his fight to push Scalise to a runoff, Burns also is battling popular Slidell Mayor Ben Morris and attorney David Simpson.

On the Democratic side, college professor Gilda Reed appears to have the edge over Air Force veteran Vinny Mendoza.

But regardless, Louisiana Democratic Party Executive Director Danny Ford didn’t seem overly optimistic about the 1st district seat Tuesday when he noted that the election is an “uphill battle” for Democrats.

However, Ford was quick to point out that the special election that also is taking place Saturday in the 6th district offers a friendlier landscape for the party in their bid to move the Baton Rouge-based seat from the Republican column.

If a runoff is required after Saturday’s primaries, the special election will take place on May 3. If no runoff is required for either party, the special election will take place on April 5.