Reviewing the Results from the Closed Primary
By Mike Bayham
All but one of the congressional party primaries were decided on Saturday night with the only one slated at this time to be decided in October coming less than a percentage point from being settled as well.
Though both Republican incumbent David Vitter and Democratic US Representative Charles Melancon won their respective party nomination comfortably, it was the junior US Senator that had the more impressive showing.
In addition to garnering a higher percentage than his Democratic opponent, Vitter received more overall votes. In fact, more votes were cast in the Republican primary than the Democratic primary despite the fact that registered Republicans constitute less than a third of the state electorate while the combined Democratic and unaffiliated voter registration comprises the remaining two-thirds.
Almost 5,000 more Republicans participated in their party primary, a sign that the GOP electorate is fired up and, more significantly for Vitter, has moved beyond his “sin”.
Furthermore, Vitter swamped his combined opponents in every parish in the state, a boast Melancon cannot claim.
Unlike Vitter, who had an opponent of some political standing (ex-State Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor), Melancon faced two unknowns who made little effort to challenge him for the Democratic nomination.
Yet Melancon’s two opponents fared fare better against him, even holding the congressman below 50% in five north Louisiana parishes (Grant, Lasalle, Sabine, Union and Winn), exposing a major obstacle to his chances of winning a statewide federal race in what will be the worst year for the Democratic Party since 1994.
Melancon’s relatively weak-showing is attributable to conservative voters that never officially left the Democratic Party casting protest ballots and a lack of enthusiasm for the election…and perhaps his candidacy.
Though Vitter’s general election poll numbers have consistently hovered in the area of 50%, the primary was an impressive show of strength by the Republican incumbent and a harsh reality check for his Democratic challenger.
New Orleans Democratic State Representative Cedric Richmond conducted his own demonstration of political power, winning his party nomination, comfortably avoiding the runoff despite the best efforts of a third-party campaign against him.
Just over 24,000 Democrats and unaffiliated voters hit the polls in the minority majority congressional district that includes most of Orleans Parish and part of Jefferson Parish.
Republican incumbent US Representative Joseph Cao doubtlessly was hoping that the contest would have gone to a second round, depleting Richmond’s campaign warchest and extending the assault on the state legislator’s image.
Richmond, who enjoyed the support of the city political establishment- including Mayor Mitch Landrieu and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, goes into the general election against Cao with momentum and has ample time to unify his party behind him and replace what he spent in the primary.
While President Barack Obama is a political albatross for Melancon, Richmond made being an ally to the White House a cornerstone of his campaign.
Cao will soon find himself in a “damned if you do, don’t” situation as the freshman congressman had already caught much grief from the Right for bolting the GOP caucus on a number of voters and is about to catch hell from Richmond for not being supportive enough of the president.
Even if unflattering stories about Richmond continue to dribble out, one should bear in mind that two years ago then-Congressman Bill Jefferson still managed to rack up almost 47% despite his many well-known transgressions.
The perfect storm that produced the environment for Cao’s stunning upset in 2008 doesn’t seem to be manifesting a second time, as a major third-party black candidate in the general election didn’t materialize at the close of qualifying nor was Richmond forced into a bruising runoff.
Last week, I observed that there appeared to be a striking parallel between the Hunt Downer and Jeff Landry primary fight and the Vitter-Dave Treen congressional election in 1999; that analogy almost played out to the full early on Saturday.
Downer had every advantage a candidate could hope to possess: high name recognition, backing from the big money men in the district and hailing from the population center and geographic heart of the sprawling Third District.
Yet in a low turnout, party primary, such assets don’t have the same value as in a high-turnout open primary.
With his credentials as a Republican and a conservative challenged (snubbing the Tea Party folk did not help) and his affiliation with the highly unpopular ex-Governor Kathleen Blanco advertised ad nauseam via a radio ad featuring thick Cajun accents, Downer not only failed to win the primary but ran a distant second to Landry, who came within 163 votes of a stunning first round knockout.
Landry’s aggressive campaign style and strategy exploiting the political realities of the closed primary proved to be extremely effective. Had Kristian Magar, the third candidate in the contest, either not run or underperformed in Iberia Parish, Landry would have locked up the GOP nomination.
Having carried every parish but Terrebonne, Landry is poised to win comfortably in the runoff while Downer has no shortage of holes to plug in his campaign, most significantly selling himself as a viable candidate to contributors who had already invested heavily in his campaign in the primary.
Downer also has to contend with the argument that staying in the race could endanger the GOP’s chances of taking the seat back from the Democrats. A division within the Republican Party largely hampered Billy Tauzin, III’s unsuccessful bid to succeed his father in 2004.
Republican leaders nationally and in south Louisiana might voice the opinion that Downer “call the Hunt” off for the sake of the party, which would further marginalize Downer’s position.
And as Downer struggles to refill his campaign coffers, Landry’s campaign treasury will benefit from a major windfall as contributors scramble to get on-board further doubling Downer’s problems.
The silver lining for Downer is that the runoff will take place the same time as the special election for Lieutenant Governor and school board, which will increase voter turnout- a benefit for the better-known Downer, though even expanded voter participation might not be enough to change a campaign picture that had been deftly framed by Landry’s effective negative advertisements.