Endangered Species?

by Jeremy Alford

National Republicans and Democrats have targeted two congressional seats in Louisiana as potential turnovers for the 2008 election cycle, but there's stiff competition shaping up all over the state.

The 2008 election season has gone from ho-hum to unpredictable practically overnight. Longtime Shreveport Rep. Jim McCrery, a Republican, is retiring and the seat is now seen as a toss-up that could very well go Democrat for the first time in recent history. Two or three strong Democrats, maybe more, should soon surface to make bids in the New Orleans district where Rep. Bill Jefferson is sucking air. Whether he beats the federal corruption charges that are pending against him, Jefferson is facing another career-defining challenge next year.

The seat being left vacant by Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal will in all likelihood stay in Republican hands, but the competitors are stacking up in what promises to be a classic south Louisiana race.

The wild card on the ballot could very well be Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville whose recent vote on a right-to-work bill has angered his labor support. For Dems, labor money can account for up to 30 percent of their campaign kitty, so the tiff, although quiet up to now, is being taken seriously. Additionally, with the number of voters the district lost to the 2005 hurricanes and redistricting right around the corner, Melancon's camp is already preoccupied and nervous enough.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are at the core of the two most organized challenges facing members of the Louisiana delegation. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is hoping the Democratic base of Sen. Mary Landrieu of New Orleans has been wiped out to the point of benefitting a GOP candidate. The NRSC has handpicked Treasurer John Kennedy as its conservative banner-holder, but Secretary of State Jay Dardenne has not yet ruled out an entrance.

Landrieu's vulnerability is not being taken lightly on the Hill. In a recent report published by Congressional Quarterly, a non-partisan publication, Landrieu's name was mentioned as a possible appointee to the Department of Homeland Security should a Democrat take the White House. The report suggested that Landrieu would "land softly" if taken out by Kennedy, Dardenne or another headhunter.

For now, the NRSC is sticking to good old oppo research, attacking Landrieu on her votes and quotes. Most recently, the group lashed out at Landrieu for standing with Democrats in the Senate to insist upon adding troop withdrawal timetables to emergency spending legislation for the military. President Bush has promised he would veto any legislation with such language.

According to a senior Army officer quoted in a story on, an online news hub connected closely with the Armed Forces, "quality of life programs for soldiers and their families would be affected worldwide if the Army doesn't receive additional funding from Congress soon." It goes on to claim that roughly "200,000 Army civilians and contractors worldwide could be furloughed or temporarily laid off if the funding isn't provided."

NRSC Communications Director Rebecca Fisher is milking it for as much as she can, although it's a gentle salvo compared to what's coming next year. "The necessary additional funding is being held up by Mary Landrieu and Democrats in Congress who continue to insist upon adding troop withdrawal timetables to the emergency spending legislation for the military," Fisher says. "How does Mary Landrieu plan on explaining to voters in Louisiana that since Democrats have put thousands of Americans out of work, they might not be having Christmas?"

Landrieu says she didn't want to see the funding "interrupted by a partisan political fight," but a stand had to be made on the issue. "We need to establish specific objectives for our presence [in Iraq], clear benchmarks for our success, and a commitment to bringing our troops home once these goals are achieved," Landrieu says. "But unrealistic timetables or irresponsible cuts to troop funding are not acceptable substitutes for a coherent strategy."

Louisiana's senior senator will surely be taken to task on every questionable vote, but she has also been proactive, filing legislation on immigration and terrorism that move her closer to center on the political spectrum.

On the flip side of the GOP strategy, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is aiming at Rep. Richard Baker of Baton Rouge because there could be a new bulk of Democratic voters in the 6th District that were displaced by the hurricanes. "Richard Baker is definitely one of our targets this session," says Kyra Jennings, a DCCC spokeswoman. "We believe he is vulnerable, but it will take the right kind of Democrat to run in that district, someone who is moderate-to-conservative, and we have been recruiting that caliber of candidate." (State Rep. Don Cazayoux of New Roads, who seems to have been edged out of the ongoing race for House speaker, is on the top of the lonely list.)

The tough talk is nothing new for Baker; he's faced stiff opposition in the past. "My district has a long history of being targeted like this, and I'm expecting more of the same next year," Baker says. "Democrats are going to be spending a lot of money in the Senate race and presidential race, so they figure they may as well drop some money in this one, too."

More than anything else, party loyalty is a major theme among state GOP die hards these days when addressing Baker's future. During this year's elections, he endorsed Democrats for statewide and local office. The decision has infuriated a few "big money" Republicans, one veteran strategist says, and they won't soon forget. When asked why he would go out on a limb, Baker says he was simply paying out for chips being cashed in by people he respects. "In politics, you have friends and you don't ask your friends whether they're Republican or Democrat," Baker says. "In past campaigns I have had Democrats support me to their detriment, and I was merely returning political favors."

Favors are indeed good to have, but it appears both Baker and Landrieu will need much more than markers to make it through the 2008 election season ' and they won't be alone in struggling to maintain their seats.