If the election were held in the next few weeks, we'd probably see two Democrats in the runoff -- a prospect that daily sends chills down the backsides of GOP leaders across Louisiana. That's a case of deja vu all over again, as the GOP faced the same scary scenario in the 1996 U.S. Senate race. In that contest, Democrats Mary Landrieu and Richard Ieyoub led the pack until the final weeks of the primary. It took a concerted effort by the GOP, the daily press and the U.S. Justice Department to drag Ieyoub through the gutter and lift then-state Rep. Woody Jenkins into the runoff.
Landrieu went on to win the election. Ieyoub was cleared of any wrongdoing, and Jenkins has retreated to the political margins from whence he came.
This time around, Attorney General Ieyoub again factors into the equation. He and four other Democrats collectively out-poll all seven Republicans in the race.
Here's how the race stands now:
Ieyoub is the leading fund-raiser among all the candidates with more than $2 million in the bank at the end of 2002. He will likely have the support of sheriffs and district attorneys across the state -- the same base that propelled him into the AG's office in 1991. The big question is whether the baggage that his opponents saddled him with in 1996 will weigh him down in the stretch again this year.
Another Democrat, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, consistently leads the pack in independent voter surveys, although many suspect that's more a reflection of her name recognition (and the fact that voters see her as a "safe" choice) than a deeply held commitment to vote for her in October. We'll see.
State Treasurer John Kennedy is the other statewide official in the race. He's a good fund-raiser, the youngest of the leading Democrats and probably the most telegenic campaigner. His political roots lie with former Gov. Buddy Roemer, but he also has had close ties to Gov. Mike Foster. Those ties can be assets as well as liabilities.
Former Congressman Buddy Leach has the biggest personal war chest in the game, and he has not been bashful about using it. He has locked up support among African-American politicos around the state while taking his populist message to voters via television ads. He was tainted by a vote-buying scandal in the 1970s, but it remains to be seen if that will hurt him in this contest.
Former state Senate President Randy Ewing showed surprisingly well in the fund-raising reports, and he has quietly locked up lots of "good government" support across the state. Ewing's biggest problem is that he leaves many people yawning. If he can show some fire in the belly, he'll be one to watch.
These Democrats are not only fewer in number than their GOP counterparts, but they also cover more philosophical turf. Leach and Ieyoub appeal to the left, while Blanco, Kennedy and Ewing are middle-of-the-roaders.
The seven Republicans -- Public Service Commissioner Jay Blossman of Slidell, state Rep. Hunt Downer of Houma, state Senate President John Hainkel of New Orleans, state Sen. Ken Hollis of Metairie, former Health Secretary Bobby Jindal of Baton Rouge, former Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle of Baton Rouge and former Gov. Dave Treen of Mandeville -- all hail from the south or southeast corner of the state. Furthermore, none currently holds statewide office, and all are staunch conservatives. There just isn't that much of a pie for them to carve up, and none has broken from the pack yet.
If things don't start to change after the war, the GOP could find itself in the same position it was in back in 1996 -- having to eat some of its own while slaughtering one leading Democrat. It almost worked then, but there are no guarantees in this game.