Thursday, July 10, 2008

Assessing Jefferson’s Chances

Posted By on Thu, Jul 10, 2008 at 10:57 PM

Despite facing 16 federal criminal counts in the Northern District of Virginia, Congressman Bill Jefferson has to like his re-election chances after Day 2 of qualifying for Congress in Louisiana’s Second District.

Jefferson faces six opponents in the Sept. 6 Democratic Primary, but as far as Dollar Bill is concerned, the more the merrier. (I discount the rumor that he will pull out of the Democratic primary at the last minute and run as an independent on Nov. 4. With no Republican in the race, he’d surely lose on Nov. 4 to the Democratic nominee, who almost certainly will be a well-known African-American. He fares much better running as a Democrat against a crowded field, which is what we’re seeing already.)


Simple mathematics.

Depending on whether Jefferson makes the runoff (a safe bet, but not a sure thing), the numbers could be there for Jefferson in terms of voter registration, his base level of support (even in the face of his federal indictment) and the number of Democratic challengers.

At the same time, several variables could tilt the results against Jefferson. Here’s a closer look at the math and the variables:

Voter Registration — The Sept. 6 Democratic primary and Oct. 4 runoff are open to registered Democrats and “no-party” voters (as well as recognized “other party” voters whose parties aren’t holding separate primaries). Democratic Party registration is 75 percent black in the Second District. If you add in the “other party” registrants, the eligible Democratic electorate is nearly 68 percent black. That bodes well for any black Democrat, including Jefferson, and not so well for Helena Moreno, the former TV newscaster who, so far, is the only non-black (but also the only woman) candidate in the race. The variable here is turnout; more on that later. First, back to Jefferson’s chances.

Jefferson’s Hard Core Support — If Jefferson has a hard base of 25 percent or slightly better, which polls and history tell us is a reasonable assumption, the congressman seems a safe bet to make the runoff. Yeah, he’s damaged goods right now, but a poll for Moreno by Ed Renwick still has him at roughly 30 percent, which is what he got in the 2006 open primary. More on that later, too.

Cast of Thousands — Given the fact that five of his six Democratic opponents are African-American, there’s a pretty good chance that Jefferson’s black challengers will split up the black vote that the congressman does not get. If Moreno gets most of the white vote, she could wind up running second — which is exactly what Jefferson must be hoping and praying will happen.

No doubt most of the district’s black voters are embarrassed by Jefferson’s scandalous history and would prefer to see someone else represent them in Congress. But, does anyone really believe that black voters in Louisiana’s Second Congressional District are going to toss out Louisiana’s only black congressman in favor of a politically inexperienced Hispanic woman just weeks before America elects its first-ever black president? Anything can happen in Louisiana politics, but the chances of that happening are not great.

Which brings us to the variables, starting with the biggest of all:

Turnout — While history is instructive, it (like polls) is not necessarily predictive. The open primary of 2006 was just that — an open primary. This go-round it’s a closed primary. The dynamics and the numbers are very different this time. Another distinction: two years ago the primary was held on Nov. 7, which created a bigger turnout than what we’re likely to see this Sept. 6.

Depending on whether U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu draws a major Democratic challenger (yet another variable, which we’ll know by 5 p.m. Friday), the turnout on Sept. 6 could be relatively light. Another factor that could adversely affect turnout as far as Jefferson is concerned is his own lack of campaign cash and the fact that his brother Mose, who runs the congressman’s GOTV and street efforts, is also under indictment in a separate case and scheduled to stand trial in October. To say the least, Mose will have a lot on his plate the next few weeks.

Voter Displacement — The displacement of New Orleans black voters after Katrina is disproportionately black, and within the ranks of black voters it’s disproportionately poor. That’s doubly bad for Jefferson, who runs strongest among poorer blacks.

If Jefferson can’t generate a large turnout in his base, there’s a chance he could run third. On the other hand, the smaller turnout in 2006 worked in his favor. (Think Harry Lee’s advice to JP voters: “Stay home.”) The smaller the pool of voters, the easier it is to skew the results in your favor — if you have a good GOTV effort. That’s where Mose Jefferson’s indictment and Jefferson’s lack of campaign cash loom large.

Before we leave the topic of turnout, let’s look at who might be favored by this variable. Right off the top, the guy who’s gotta be liking his chances is Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee. He’s going to be the Jefferson Parish candidate, and his political base was virtually unaffected by Katrina in terms of displacement. That should skew turnout on Sept. 6 in his favor. The candidacies of the Carter twins — Troy and James, both of Algiers — could cut into Lee’s West Bank support, but Lee has locked up the support of much of the Algiers political establishment already. He’s probably the leading black challenger to Jefferson at this point. Depending on what we learn about him in the next seven weeks, that could change.

If overall black turnout is suppressed by voter displacement and other factors, that would appear to favor Moreno — up to a point. Lower black turnout on Sept. 6 could get her into the Oct. 4 runoff, but it’s a safe bet that we’ll see a higher turnout among blacks as well as whites (and thus more proportionate to the registration figures) on Oct. 4. That’s also the date of the open primaries in all the local elections — for DA, district judge, state Supreme Court, Orleans school board, etc. If Moreno makes the runoff, her chances against a black opponent — even Jefferson — are not good.

Which brings us to yet another variable.

Racial Voting Patterns — How much crossover voting are we likely to see? With so many high-profile black challengers, it’s tough to see very many black voters casting a ballot for Moreno. The more intriguing question is how much white vote will she get? If whites perceive that a vote for her might actually help Jefferson, her chances could evaporate quickly. She starts out as a political novice, which she will portray as a good thing, but she’ll still have to convince white folks that she has a reasonable chance of winning. Otherwise, many white voters will be looking for a black alternative to Jefferson. If she grabs the bulk of the white vote, she will be hard to keep out of the runoff. Then it’s a question of whether Jefferson makes it as well. Against an unscarred black opponent, her chances in the runoff are nil.

Meanwhile, keep your eye on the list of those qualifying for U.S. Senate and Congress in Districts 1 and 2. It’s going to be a very interesting political season.

Disclaimer: I’m writing this on Thursday, July 10, which means there’s another whole day of qualifying left. None of this is intended as a prediction — just a snapshot of how things look right now.

That said, if you see Bill Jefferson grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat in the next few weeks, you’ll know why.


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