Cazayoux and Carry

Democrat’s Win in Louisiana Has Parties Girding for Mississippi

Posted May 5, 2008 at 6:32pm

In the 2008 Triple Crown of competitive special House elections, Democrats are up two races to none on the GOP. And with one week to go before the final race of this spring series, Republicans are fighting hard to keep from getting swept.

On Saturday, Democrats celebrated a second competitive special election victory this year when Louisiana state Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) defeated former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) in a hotly contested race to fill the seat of former Rep. Richard Baker (R). Unofficial results gave Cazayoux a 49 percent to 46 percent victory in an election that saw both national parties spend heavily.

Back in March, Democrats picked up the seat of former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in another hard-fought special election.

Now the special election set for next Tuesday in Mississippi’s 1st district will likely be regarded as either the place where Republicans stemmed the rising Democratic wave in the runup to November or the place where their vulnerability this cycle was put on display for all to see.

Prentiss County Chancery Clerk Travis Childers (D) and Southaven Mayor Greg Davis (R) will meet in a May 13 runoff to fill the seat of now-Sen. Roger Wicker (R).

In what was once a safely Republican district under Wicker, Childers earned 49 percent of the vote to Davis’ 46 percent in the preliminary contest last month and came less than 500 votes shy of locking up the special election outright.

Considering Democratic excitement stemming from Cazayoux’s victory next door in Louisiana and Childers’ surprising performance so far in conservative Mississippi, Richard Forgette, the chairman of the University of Mississippi political science department, said Monday that “times couldn’t be better I think for a Democrat in north Mississippi.”

As the Mississippi contest has progressed, Davis’ campaign and the National Republican Congressional Committee have employed much the same strategy that was used against Cazayoux leading up to Saturday’s race. They are working to make the race less of a regional battle between two conservative candidates and more of an ideological battle between national Democrats and Republicans.

Childers was put on the defensive last week when Republicans tried to link his campaign to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), who, along with more liberal national party leaders like Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), don’t exactly play well in conservative northern Mississippi.

But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1st district as well. The DCCC has hit Davis on local issues such as his tax decisions as mayor but also linked him to the “George Bush-era” of politics.

“It’s razor-thin and becoming nationalized,” Forgette said of the 1st district race. And as the DCCC and NRCC have begun to play heavily and the outcome of the race takes on a significance beyond Mississippi, “both campaigns are sort of losing their control over their own message,” Forgette said.

Davis campaign spokesman Ted Prill said Monday that Davis is very much in control of his own message and that the strategy of nationalizing the special election race will prove to be successful.

Despite Jenkins’ defeat, Prill said linking Cazayoux to Obama and Pelosi was the reason why the GOP kept the contest close despite the fact that some polls had Jenkins down by nearly double digits late in the race.

And besides, comparing Davis to Jenkins — whom some Republicans on Capitol Hill have said was a flawed candidate from the outset — would be like comparing apples to oranges, Prill said.

“From the campaign side we are running a much more aggressive campaign than Woody did,” Prill said. Pointing out that no less than four national conservative groups ran ads for Jenkins, Prill added that “we are not solely dependent on outside groups to win this campaign.”

But regardless of what Davis’ campaign does in the next week, the NRCC is confident that Republicans will soon get a return on the hundreds of thousands of dollars they’ve invested in their nationalization strategy.

In its post-election memo Saturday night, the NRCC said the results of the Louisiana 6th special “speaks to the potential toxicity of an Obama candidacy and the possible drag he could have down-ballot this fall. … what we do know is that a Democrat was clearly favored to easily win this election before Republicans invoked the names of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. This should come as a warning shot to Democrats.”

Democrats appear to be happy to let the GOP continue to pursue what they say is a flawed strategy.

Nationalizing the race “was the big silver bullet that [NRCC Chairman Tom Cole] was talking about, and it’s not working,” DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell said.

Back in Louisiana on Monday, Republicans were already looking ahead to November with the hopes of making Cazayoux’s Congressional career short-lived.

“I think the seat is going to be competitive,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.) said. “The real challenge for [Cazayoux] now is to match the campaign rhetoric of a conservative Democrat with the harsh reality here in Washington where the agenda is driven by the far left.”

And with Cazayoux earning less than 50 percent of the vote in the special election Saturday, Republicans and Democrats said Monday that Cazayoux’s seat is by no means safe this fall.

One thing that could hobble Cazayoux is the fact that state Rep. Michael Jackson (D), whom Cazayoux beat in the special election primary, is considering running as an independent this fall.

Jackson, who is black, could draw a significant voting bloc from Cazayoux in a district that is 33 percent black.

“Right now it appears I will be a candidate,” Jackson said Monday. “We’re leaving our options open to do a Democratic primary run or do an independent run, which would be a more cost effective run for us.”

On the GOP side it’s unclear whether Republicans will give Jenkins the opportunity to run again or dump him in favor of a less controversial candidate. For his part, Jenkins said he is “strongly considering” seeking his party’s nomination again.

“I would expect a vigorous primary,” Boustany said. “There are a number of state legislators in the area who could step forward on the Republican side and make this a very good race in the fall.”

Meanwhile, in a noncompetitive special election Saturday in Louisiana’s 1st district, state Sen. Steve Scalise (R) easily defeated college professor Gilda Reed (D), 75 percent to 23 percent, on Saturday. The 1st district widely is regarded as the safest Republican seat in the Bayou State, and Scalise should have no trouble holding the seat in November.