National political pundits are painting Louisiana red this year, predicting a near sweep for GOP candidates. That may indeed happen, but big races here tend to tighten in the late stages. In fact, the re-election bids of two closely watched Louisiana Republicans — U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao — could go down to the wire Nov. 2.
Or sooner, in Vitter's case.
More than history suggests that Vitter and Cao could be in for cliffhangers. Each incumbent also faces a unique set of circumstances complicating his prospects. Vitter is racked by scandals, and Cao is a Vietnamese-American Republican hoping to hang onto a seat in a district that is overwhelmingly black and Democratic.
"In the general election, I'm sure you'll see the Democratic Party taking aim at Vitter, assuming he's the Republican nominee," says local demographer Greg Rigamer, who has advised numerous campaigns. "As to whether Vitter can be beat at that point, it's an open question."
Vitter has been hounded by a prostitution scandal that came to light in 2007, and last month a new scandal arose: He retained an aide who had several DUI arrests and who held a woman at knifepoint for 90 minutes, then cut her badly enough to require stitches. The senator now faces a GOP primary challenge from former state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor of Monroe, who says he's running because Vitter is a bad political risk for the party. Traylor's late entry offers Republicans a viable alternative to the embattled incumbent. To make matters worse, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal — at least for now — remains neutral in the party primary.
For entirely different reasons, Cao also faces a tough re-election fight — although he has no opposition for the GOP nomination. "I don't think lightning is going to strike twice," says UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak, who called Cao's victory in a hurricane-delayed 2008 race "a fluke."
In that December 2008 race, the percentage of black voter turnout was extremely low — 14.1 percent — only slightly more than half that of white voters. The skewed turnout meant that blacks that day cast less than 49 percent of the votes in a district that is more than 61 percent black. Cao won with a 49.5 percent plurality.
Chervenak estimates that Cao received only about 2 percent of the black vote in 2008, and that was against a scandalized Bill Jefferson. "If that pattern holds this year, and blacks turn out nearly as much as whites do, that should help the African-American candidate," Chervenak says.
The Cao campaign, meanwhile, recently released a poll showing him with much improved numbers among black voters and a good chance of retaining his seat. The new congressman is conceding no votes, black or white, to his Democratic challengers.
Four black Democrats have qualified against Cao, and two are familiar names — state Reps. Cedric Richmond and Juan LaFonta. They face two lesser-known Democrats in an Aug. 28 primary that could be just as hard fought as the Nov. 2 general election. Richmond and LaFonta are more than competitors in this election; they are bitter political rivals. A Democratic bloodletting could work in Cao's favor.
In politics, money talks — but it doesn't always win. Vitter has more than $5 million in his campaign account and consistently has led his main Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville, in early polls. Melancon's war chest is less than half the size of Vitter's, and Traylor starts out with even less. Then again, Vitter will need every penny he can scrape together to overcome the scandals that have hounded him since his cell phone number turned up in the records of the notorious (and now deceased) D.C. Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, in 2007. Unlike Cao, he also has an opponent in the Republican primary.
Vitter, 49, has other problems as well. His infamous temper, if he shows it on the campaign trail, will surely hurt him, as will his retention of aide Brent Furer, who held a female friend at knifepoint, threatened to kill her, and then cut her in 2008. Vitter suspended Furer for five days, then put him back on the payroll — in charge of women's issues. He fired Furer last month after ABC News brought the aide's criminal record to light. Vitter has been ducking reporters ever since, and now he faces more than a dozen opponents.
Traylor's late entry into the GOP primary caught many by surprise. Another Republican, Nick Accardo of Franklin, also qualified against Vitter but is a relative unknown.
"The Republican primary only addresses about 753,000 registered voters," says Rigamer, whose specialty is helping candidates identify and turn out their supporters. "And remember, the primary is going to be on Aug. 28, which is not a typical election weekend in Louisiana. If you get a 30 percent turnout in that primary, that would be huge. The peak turnout would be about 225,000 — but it could be as low as 150,000 statewide. That's not a lot of votes."
Rigamer says Vitter has an advantage in the primary because of his existing statewide organization, but nothing is certain. "For Traylor, the issue is money," Rigamer adds. "He needs to get his name out and organize enough support to get people motivated to go out and vote for him."
Easier said than done, but given Vitter's history of misconduct and the fact that he can no longer claim to be the family-values champion that he ran as in 2004, not an impossible task. There's also an uneasy feeling among many leading Republicans that there's more dirt out there on Vitter — and that Democrats are "saving it" for the general election to help elect Melancon. Based on that fear, a lot of Republicans welcomed Traylor's candidacy.
In addition to financial challenges, Traylor, 64, has just six weeks to get his message out. His ace in the hole is that Vitter has become a lightning rod for controversy ever since the D.C. Madam scandal, and the incumbent is universally known — so he has little room to grow. Traylor has solid conservative credentials. A former military police officer, state trooper and prosecutor, he was a darling of the business community as a judge. His northeast Louisiana base also cuts into Vitter's support in an area that is solidly Republican.
Traylor says he will make Vitter's record — particularly the scandals — an issue in his campaign. Another issue that he will use against Vitter is the senator's attempt to cap BP's damages from the Gulf oil catastrophe. Vitter proposed raising the existing cap to a year's worth of the company's profits. Traylor says he opposes any move to limit what BP owes the state and its citizens.
Traylor will need to launch a statewide TV and radio blitz soon to make this a real race, and he has assembled a formidable team in media consultant Roy Fletcher (who was deputy chair of John McCain's 2000 campaign in Louisiana) and veteran pollster Verne Kennedy. Fletcher is known for his hard-hitting TV ads.
"Some people say I need a million dollars to take on Senator Vitter, but I think I can do it for less than that," Traylor says. He also hinted at a strategy that will target female voters, noting that the Furer furor is "a concern for a lot of people, and certainly to women. I don't believe you put someone in charge of women's affairs who's had the kind of problems he's got."
That portends a white-knuckle GOP primary.
If Vitter gets by Traylor and then beats Melancon (who is expected to breeze past token Democratic challengers) on Nov. 2, he should send President Barack Obama a thank-you note. The president is extremely unpopular in the Bayou State, particularly after his offshore drilling moratorium. At every turn, Vitter touts his opposition to Obama's policies and Melancon's Democratic ties. In many ways, Vitter isn't running against Melancon; he's running against Obama.
"John McCain got a larger majority in Louisiana than in any other state, including his home state of Arizona," notes Rigamer. "It will be a challenge for a Democrat to take the Senate seat."
The federal elections in Louisiana will follow a different timetable and different rules than state and local contests. Candidates for federal offices must run in separate party primaries on Aug. 28, followed by party runoffs (if necessary) on Oct. 2, and then face independents and other party nominees in a general election on Nov. 2.
In races for state and local offices — lieutenant governor, various judgeships, and numerous local elections across the state — candidates will run in an open primary on Oct. 2 (the same date as federal party runoffs, if any), followed by runoffs, if needed, on Nov. 2.
Perhaps the most important difference is the fact that the Nov. 2 runoffs for state and local offices will feature only two candidates in each contest. Vitter and Cao's general elections, on the other hand, will feature the leading Democrat, the leading Republican and any independent, small party or "no party" candidates who have qualified. That could make a huge difference in the election results, because the winners of the federal contests need only a plurality to win.
Cao's 2008 victory, which he won with less than 49 percent of the vote, proves that "minor" candidates can make a major difference. The Libertarian and Green Party candidates garnered less than 4 percent of the vote, but that was enough to tip the election in Cao's favor.
In this election, Vitter drew a total of 16 opponents. The Nov. 2 ballot will feature 12 of them: the GOP nominee, the Democratic nominee, the Reform Party nominee (William McShan, who is unopposed for his party nomination), the Libertarian Party nominee (two candidates qualified as Libertarians), and eight others who are running as independents, "no party" candidates or "other party" hopefuls.
While most of Vitter's general election opponents are political unknowns, one has the potential to be a spoiler: state Rep. Ernest Wooton of Belle Chasse, who shed his GOP affiliation to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot against the incumbent.
Wooton, 68, a former sheriff in Plaquemines Parish, is a wild card in every sense of the word. Known for his colorful rhetoric and sharp wit, he is a threat to both Vitter and Melancon. His history as an outspoken, pro-gun Republican will certainly attract conservatives who might otherwise go for Vitter, and his Plaquemines political base puts him squarely in Melancon's congressional district. The fact that Plaquemines is catching much of the brunt of the BP oil catastrophe also gives him a platform.
"Everybody is talking, but nobody is getting anything done," Wooton says of the spill. "I'm not saying that nobody's trying, it's just that they're not getting anything done."
Of his decision to bolt from the GOP, Wooton says he should have done it long ago. "I've always been a free spirit who's not afraid to ask the tough questions," he says, adding that his decision to bypass the GOP primary allows him to go "straight to the finals."
As for issues, Wooton says he decided to run because "we have to understand that our country is at stake. Our country is in trouble. We need to do something about it. I'm a fighter, so let's fight."
If Louisiana voters have to choose among the lesser of evils on Nov. 2 — that is, between their dislike of Obama and their distaste for Vitter — the incumbent could be in good shape. Anyone who doesn't understand that dynamic should study Bill Jefferson's successful re-election campaign in 2006. On the heels of FBI agents finding $90,000 in marked C-notes in Dollar Bill's freezer, he still beat a large field for a ninth consecutive term.
Then, of course, came Hurricane Gustav and Joseph Cao in 2008.
Joseph Cao may be the only Republican in the Louisiana delegation in serious danger of losing his seat, but he won't be a pushover. The 43-year-old freshman has walked a political tightrope between his sharply divided allegiances — to his GOP patrons locally and in the Beltway, and to his Democratic constituents, who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008.
Cao faces no challengers for the GOP nomination, but four Democrats qualified against him: state Reps. Richmond and LaFonta, and Eugene Green and Gary Johnson. Three independents also jumped into the race and will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot with Cao and the Democratic nominee. If the Nov. 2 general election is another nail-biter, the independents could once again tip the balance.
Almost from the moment Cao declared victory on Dec. 6, 2008, pundits have written him off as a one-termer. Even now, with more than $300,000 in the bank, political handicappers don't give him much of a shot.
It's all in the numbers.
"If you look at the October 2008 election, when New Orleans was electing a new district attorney, 59 percent of the votes cast that day in Orleans Parish were by African Americans," says Rigamer. "If you look at the presidential race in Cao's district, 61 percent of the votes were cast by African Americans in November 2008. Then look at Cao's race in December 2008, and 48 percent of the votes cast were by African Americans.
"That's the tale of the tape. It literally is all about turnout. If the vote is heavily African-American, as you would expect it to be, it tends to favor the Democratic candidate."
"The Second District was created for the purpose of allowing African Americans to elect a candidate of choice," he says. "In this state, about 30 percent of the registered voters are African American, but there are no African-American members of Congress from this state. I expect the African-American community to rally behind a black candidate in the general election."
In past elections, that logic held up most of the time. But since Katrina, a growing number of black voters in black-majority jurisdictions have shown a willingness to support non-black candidates. Examples abound: District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, at-large Council members Arnie Fielkow and Jackie Clarkson, and district Council members Stacy Head and Kristin Palmer. A good many white judges and other parochial officials likewise are evidence of that trend.
Cao hopes to become the latest example.
In a recent poll taken for his campaign by Verne Kennedy, 46 percent of the voters surveyed said they wanted to see him return to Congress, compared to 29 percent who preferred someone else. Generally, incumbents should poll higher than 50 percent on the "re-elect" question, but given the demographics of Cao's district, those are not bad numbers.
Moreover, in a head-to-head trial heat against leading Democrat Cedric Richmond, Cao out-polled Richmond by a 51-26 percent margin.
Of course, that poll was taken for Cao, and Richmond will spend much of his time reminding voters in the heavily black, heavily Democratic Second District that Cao voted against most of President Obama's agenda.
Financially, Cao paid a price for the few times he voted with the president. After initially voting for health care reform (he later voted against it), he had to cancel several fundraisers.
Chervenak cites another critical statistic in Cao's financial reports.
"Cao is only getting about 18 percent of his contributions from political action committees," Chervenak says. "The average for the other six Louisiana congressmen is 29 percent. Compared to his colleagues from Louisiana, he's lagging in contributions from PACs — possibly because he gave Obama a few votes, and possibly because they see him as vulnerable and a bad investment."
Ultimately, voters will determine on Nov. 2 whether Cao, Vitter, or any of their challengers are worthy investments.