Louisiana, land of open seats

Louisiana, land of open seats

Ron Faucheux

Louisiana has a long history of stability in its congressional delegation, part of an old southern tradition of respect for Capitol Hill seniority. And that has brought the state more than its share of influential Washington players. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Bayou State was at one time or another home to the House majority leader, Senate majority whip and chairmen of the House Armed Services Committee, Senate Finance Committee and Senate Appropriations Committee. Big power for a state with four million people.

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But this year, congressional seats are up for grabs in Louisiana with a vengeance.

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The rush began late last year when 32-year congressional veteran John Breaux announced he would not seek re-election to the Senate. Not only did that open up the moderate Democrat’s coveted slot, it also freed up two House seats when U.S. Reps. David Vitter (R) and Chris John (D) jumped into the Senate derby leaving their current positions vacant.

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In addition to the Senate race shuffle, 24-year House member Billy Tauzin (R) former chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, has announced that he’s retiring from Congress, possibly before his term ends in January.

But wait, there’s more.

On top of the open seats, freshman U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander (D) may have a tough re-election fight on his hands, especially if his predecessor, Republican John Cooksey, tries to re-capture the seat he vacated for an unsuccessful Senate run in 2002.

Alexander earlier this year considered switching parties, saying he supported President Bush for re-election over Sen. John Kerry. However, he decided to stay put as a conservative Democrat.

All told, a state long known for spicy politics and colorful campaigns could have as many as five major battles for congressional seats this year, a modern state record. That could mean that as few as three of the eight statewide and district seats on this year’s ballot–those held by U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson (D) and Republican U.S. Reps. Richard Baker and Jim McCrery–will be relatively quiet. McCrery could have added to the political uncertainty, as he strongly considered retiring from the House so he could spend more time with his young children. But he decided to stay and could become Ways and Means Committee chair in early 2007.

“Louisiana has an unusual situation this year,” said New Orleans-based GOP media consultant James Farwell. “Rarely does a state have this proportion of open seats at one time. It will make for very vigorous campaigning.”

The shake-up offers both parties an opportunity to pick-up seats. The Senate race is now a wide-open battle between three major candidates: Vitter, John and State Treasurer John Kennedy (D). Vitter, the only major Republican in the open primary, is favored to nab one of the two run-off berths, where he will likely face a stiff challenge from Kennedy or John.

One fly in Vitter’s ointment could be the possible candidacy of Republican Buddy Roemer, a former governor and U.S. Representative. He was elected governor as a conservative Democrat in 1987, switched parties early in 1991 and lost re-election later that year; a subsequent bid in 1995 also failed.

While Vitter’s conservative suburban New Orleans seat is handicapped to stay in GOP hands, coastal Cajun Country districts now held by Democrat John and Republican Tauzin may be more susceptible to attack from the opposition party.

So if you’re wondering why so many political consultants are heading down to Louisiana these days, it may be more than crawfish bisque and Bourbon Street that’s attracting them.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

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