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In Gustav's Wake 

While most of us in New Orleans will be done, or nearly done, cleaning up after Hurricane Gustav by the end of this week, the storm left a political mess that could take Louisiana until early December to clean up. Damn hurricanes.

State election law allows the governor, upon recommendation of the secretary of state, to postpone elections during "declared states of emergency" in order to ensure maximum citizen participation and an orderly electoral process. That exigency certainly applied to last Saturday's scheduled congressional primaries in southeast Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal thus issued an executive order rescheduling them.

It was the right call. In the immediate aftermath of Gustav, voter turnout in south Louisiana would have been so small that a relative handful of people could have chosen the Democratic nominees. (The GOP nominations are uncontested.)

Now, the Democratic primaries in the First and Second Congressional Districts will be held Oct. 4, the same date as the "open primaries" for numerous state and local offices. Barring another storm, turnout on Oct. 4 will be large — especially in New Orleans, where a hot race for district attorney tops the local ballot.

In the Second Congressional District, the six Democrats challenging embattled incumbent William Jefferson virtually guarantee a runoff, which has been rescheduled for Nov. 4 — presidential Election Day. The general election in Jefferson's congressional district, which should be a mere formality in the heavily Democratic district, has been pushed back to Dec. 6 — four days after Dollar Bill is scheduled to go on trial on federal racketeering and bribery charges in the Northern District of Virginia. The storm, and Jefferson's possible candidacy on Dec. 6, could push that event back several months as well.

Well before then, however, the revised election schedule will have a tremendous impact on the Second District contest.

For starters, I think the bigger turnout on Oct. 4 decreases Jefferson's chances of making a runoff, but his chances are still good. At the same time, I think the bigger turnout will hurt challenger Helena Moreno's chances. Here's why:

The congressman's hardcore support lies among older African-American voters, who tend to be chronic voters. They probably would have been there for him on Sept. 6 and, in a low-turnout election, would have formed a large enough bloc to put him in a runoff. The same low-turnout dynamic on Sept. 6 also would have exaggerated the impact of white turnout, which likely would have helped Moreno, the only white candidate in the race.

All that has changed now.

On Oct. 4, a larger overall turnout will dilute the impact of chronic black voters and the district's minority of white voters, who likewise tend to vote chronically. Given Jefferson's scandalized reputation and his diminished capacity to deliver for his district, a larger turnout raises the possibility of him running third. That scenario, however, requires that two of his six challengers emerge as co-frontrunners, which is by no means a certainty. As for Moreno, a larger black turnout on Oct. 4 means she either will have to get lots of black votes (very unlikely against six black opponents) or a larger share of white votes than she otherwise would have needed on Sept. 6.

Even if Moreno makes the runoff, her chances are not good on Nov. 4. I just don't see black voters in metro New Orleans, on the same day that they get to vote for the first black presidential candidate in history, handing Louisiana's only black congressional seat over to a white former newscaster who has lived in the district less than 10 years.

Then again, Louisiana politics is full of surprises.

As for Jefferson's other challengers, I think the delay helps those who can raise the money that it will take to stay on radio and TV. That won't be easy. Federal campaign finance laws are strict, and they are not "postponed" by Gustav. Ironically, that favors Moreno, who reportedly can draw down gobs of family money.

Before Gustav, state Rep. Cedric Richmond and City Councilman James Carter had gained some momentum. The storm interrupted everyone's campaign. It will be interesting to see who picks up steam in Gustav's wake.

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