It was easy to write off Jeff Landry last November. Granted, he had just clinched the 3rd Congressional District seat by toppling former state House Speaker Hunt Downer in the process. But Landry, an Iberia Parish attorney who hadn't held elective office until that moment, was also immediately labeled as the odd man out.
Louisiana was just beginning the process of redistricting, and one of its seven congressional districts had to be axed in the wake of the 2010 Census. The smart money was on Landry's 3rd to go the way of all flesh, especially since he was new to the fold. The special redistricting session conducted by state lawmakers in March made good on those bets.
Instead of running for re-election from his south-central Louisiana base in 2012, Landry will be forced to face off against fellow incumbent (and fellow Republican) Congressman Charles Boustany, a Lafayette native. Until recently, that hasn't boded well for Landry. The new district comprises most of Boustany's southwest Louisiana base.
In fact, after the spring redistricting session put all the pieces into motion, state GOP officials encouraged Landry to run against Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who was then still a Democrat. Caldwell has since switched parties and was endorsed last week by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican and the acknowledged kingmaker — if not the kingpin — of Louisiana Republicans these days.
Vitter's endorsement of Caldwell was no accident. He and Landry have become close allies on the Hill, and his support of the AG signals that Vitter has bigger aspirations for his new friend. Recent radio ads touted a series of town hall meetings the two men are holding this week in Lafayette and Lake Charles — the two most populous hubs in the district that Landry and Boustany now share. Vitter also ran well there during his 2010 re-election campaign.
The radio ad mentions Vitter and Landry five times, leaving the clear suggestion that they are a team. It's also no secret that Vitter and Boustany are anything but friends. Could this mean that Vitter plans to endorse the rookie from New Iberia against the veteran Boustany next year?
"I wouldn't want to speculate on that," Landry says. "But I think it's safe to say the senator and I do enjoy a very close relationship when it comes to politics and issues."
Landry says his relationship with Vitter goes back at least a decade, when he was a contributor the senator's campaign. In 2007, Landry ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate and received support from the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, which Vitter helped create.
Vitter is still raising money for LCRM, which has no official connections to the Louisiana Republican Party. Under campaign finance laws, LCRM cannot coordinate its activities or expenditures with candidates it supports; it has to remain "independent." Meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal is among the architects of the GOP's new "Victory Fund," which the governor announced in mid-July. That news adds to a separate, developing narrative pitting Vitter against Jindal for control of the hearts, minds and money of the state GOP.
While the Vitter-Landry alliance seems to be ripening only now, sources say the pair truly bonded during the redistricting process, which Vitter reportedly watched closely — with a keen eye on Boustany's fate.
At a glance, the senator and the freshman congressman have a lot in common, starting with their aggressive political style. Both have been charbroiled by opponents on touchy issues — Vitter for a prostitution scandal, Landry on old business dealings and military service — and both have been acquitted, so to speak, by the electorate.
Earlier this month, a Vitter staffer called Landry a "more Cajun version of David." Landry laughed when read the line. "I certainly take it as an honor," Landry says. "It's flattering. He's a person I can trust, someone who will shoot straight with me."
Landry really started to carve out a name worth remembering last month when he positioned himself as a leader and major personality among a group of House Republicans that have been described as "renegades" in national media reports. In late July, the group flexed its muscle through a balanced budget amendment that was brokered by Landry and other GOP uber-conservatives. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, originally wanted to raise the national debt ceiling in exchange for making billions of dollars in cuts and capping future spending.
Landry and his cohorts fought to include a constitutional amendment that would require all budgets to be balanced when passed by Congress. The 218-210 vote was just enough to help Boehner get his plan through the House.
This group of right-wing newbies, consisting mostly of representatives elected with help from the Tea Party movement, doesn't have an official name yet, but they are trying to make an impact. "We haven't been branded," Landry says. "Just whipped."
Landry recalls that negotiations with congressional leaders were "intense" and spanned 48 hours. He says he felt a though the amendment was the "right thing to do" and that there was an urgency to have it in place before President Barack Obama or one of his successors requests another increase in the federal debt limit. "When I was negotiating in Speaker Boehner's office, David Vitter was the person I called for guidance," Landry says.
Since 1962, Congress has raised the debt ceiling 74 times — 10 times during the past decade. The federal government has incurred (and increased) so much debt because Congress and presidents have chosen to spend money faster than they collect it via taxes.
While Landry and the GOP holdouts are new to the nation's high stakes budget-and-deficit game, their impact has remained confined to the House. When the Senate received Boehner's plan, it drew a violent reaction from many lawmakers and resulted in a 59-41 vote to table the proposal.
Landry took on Sen. Mary Landrieu, a New Orleans Democrat, and criticized her for voting against the balanced budget amendment. They each penned letters to the editor blasting each other.
In her defense, Landrieu says she had concerns about the way the amendment was drafted, particularly a provision that would have automated spending cuts if the House and Senate couldn't agree to them. She says other balanced budget amendments are likely to be advanced in the coming weeks — and that she wants to vote in favor of one. As usual, the devil will be in the details. "It's a healthy debate that we need to have," Landrieu says. "We should end up seeing a lot of different versions."
That brief skirmish helped fuel speculation that Landry is lining himself up for a run against Landrieu in 2014. Landry says he has the job he wants, but having Landrieu as a rhetorical and political stalking horse could jack up Landry's stature in the contest to topple Boustany — much as Vitter made President Obama his "opponent" in the senator's 2010 re-election campaign. It's a tried-and-true strategy in increasingly conservative Louisiana.
As for Landry and his gang of "unbranded" young Republicans, the balanced budget debate wasn't the first or last time they'll make waves on the Hill. They've already carved out a notable stance on the use of recess appointments, with Landry as a leader.
When Congress is away during recesses, presidents can avoid Senate confirmation hearings and make "recess appointments" to key positions that might otherwise provoke senatorial "holds" or protracted hearings. In fairness, the tactic has been used by GOP and Democratic presidents alike. Landry says it needs to stop, which is why he authored an amendment several weeks ago to the 2012 energy and water budget bill.
His amendment prevents recess appointees to the Department of Energy, Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Land Management from getting paid. The House voted 227-193 in favor of Landry's defunding proposal, which is now contained in H.R. 2354.
In June, Landry led the coalition of more than 75 freshmen in drafting a letter to the House leadership requesting that "all appropriate measures be taken to prevent any recess appointment by the president for the remainder of the 112th Congress."
Where did Landry get the idea?
"Sen. Vitter recommended that I give that a try," Landry says.
Landry turned up the heat when, during recent recesses, he twice served as pro forma speaker of the House. The move officially kept Congress in session — and thwarted any potential recess appointments. That has meant a few Friday nights in D.C. overseeing housekeeping issues — and missing out on the start of the Fourth of July weekend.
But it's good politics, at least for Landry. He says some continue to ask him to run for attorney general — and that the thought of "being home is attractive — but a congressional seat is the only thing on his mind these days.
That ... and another debate over a balanced budget amendment. "I certainly hope we do that again," Landry says. "If not, I'm going to scream and cuss until we do."
Just like his new mentor, Sen. Vitter.
— Jeremy Alford covers statewide issues for Gambit. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.