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Off and Running 

At the rate would-be candidates opted not to seek Gov. Bobby Jindal's vacated First District congressional seat, it's surprising there's much of a race left to run. Two months ago, the most frequently mentioned names of potential candidates included St. Tammany Parish President Kevin Davis, Jefferson Parish Councilman at-Large John Young, and former Gov. Dave Treen. None of them made it to the post.

That left state Sen. Steve Scalise of Metairie as the clear front-runner on the Republican side. Scalise faces state Rep. Tim Burns of Mandeville, Slidell Mayor Ben Morris and attorney David Simpson of Mandeville in the Republican primary. A pair of political unknowns — Air Force retiree Vinny Mendoza and UNO instructor Gilda Reed — will square off in the Democratic primary. Both party primaries are set for March 8.

If a runoff is needed on the GOP side, it will be April 5. If a Republican captures a majority in the GOP primary, the general election will move up from May 3 to April 5.

This race, along with a special election in Louisiana's Sixth Congressional District (to replace Congressman Richard Baker, who quit to accept a lobbying gig), will mark a return to separate party primaries in federal elections in Louisiana after 30 years of open primaries. State and local elections will continue to be run under Louisiana's open primary system.

One of the distinctions (some would say drawbacks) of separate party primaries is the possibility that the ultimate winner could garner less than a majority of the votes. That can occur when, as is the case in the special election to succeed Jindal, "other party" or "no party" candidates qualify. They typically get a free pass to the general election. Two such candidates qualified to replace Jindal — former Jefferson Parish Clerk of Court Raoul "Skip" Galan, who was convicted of extortion, mail fraud and malfeasance in 1990 in connection with his tenure as clerk, and Anthony "Tony G" Gentile, an oil refinery supervisor who ran for governor last fall.

That means four names will appear on the general election ballot to replace Jindal in Congress: Galan, Gentile, the Democratic nominee and the GOP nominee. Whoever gets the most votes wins, even if the leading candidate garners less than a majority of the votes. If the district were more evenly divided philosophically, Galan and Gentile could siphon just enough votes to allow someone to win with a plurality. That's not likely here. The First District has lots of Democrats, but most of its voters are conservative and tilt Republican in federal elections. The potential impact of "independent" or "no party" candidates will be worth watching in other congressional races, such as the one to succeed Baker in the Baton Rouge area, and in future U.S. Senate contests, such as Mary Landrieu's bid for re-election later this year.

For now, most of the attention will focus on the Republican primary. Scalise has locked up just about all the big-name endorsements, including former Congressman Bob Livingston and GOP financiers Boysie Bollinger and Joe Canizaro. He will have virtually all the Beltway money and, without Young in the hunt, most of the Jefferson Parish loot as well.

As recently as two weeks ago, the race was shaping up as a Northshore-Southshore contest. Now it's an open question as to whether anyone can deprive Scalise of a majority in the Republican primary — although last week Morris and Burns continued to snipe at each other rather than at the front-runner. The Northshore has a slight majority of the registered voters, but turnout will still be a critical factor in this primary.

The state's Republican Party leadership has closed the GOP primary, limiting participation to registered Republicans only. The Democratic primary is open to "no party" voters as well as registered Democrats.

With Mardi Gras taking precedent until this week, the primaries will effectively be four-week sprints.


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