WANTED: Donkey With Ambition

by Jeremy Alford

For next year’s U.S. Senate race, the evangelical base has a potential candidate and so does the porn industry. But what about the Dems?
State and national Democrats have yet to coalesce behind a candidate to take on incumbent U.S. Sen. David Vitter in 2010, and it’s doubtful they could do anything to make the race any more entertaining than it already is today. But the hired flacks at the Louisiana Democratic Party and the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee both promise recruitment efforts are under way and a strong Dem will be in place to take down Vitter and his Republican ways.

Vitter, a Metairie native, is viewed as vulnerable for one very well-known reason: his ultra-conservative votes in the Senate. Just kidding. It’s the prostitution thing, which is beginning to feel overly repetitive to even mention, but it is what it is. To capitalize on this scandal, Democratic operatives have recruited Baton Rouge native and porn star extraordinaire Stormy Daniels to flirt with the race. But she probably won’t qualify and certainly won’t win — unless she defines victory as screwing Vitter, politically speaking of course, and pointing out his contradictory views on family values.

A much more serious threat emerged last week when two potential candidates from the religious right signaled they too had their sights set on the Senate race. Both have the ability to kick the soapbox out from under Vitter and call his scruples into question. According to Internet reports, former GOP Congressman John Cooksey has begun building up a campaign warchest for a possible run against Vitter. Cooksey’s political career seemingly ended in 2002, when he failed to make the runoff for Senate against Mary Landrieu. Cooksey’s campaign struggled from the outset, largely due to an infamous post 9-11 radio station interview where Cooksey endorsed Arab profiling by saying anyone “wearing a diaper on their head” should be stopped and questioned. Another blast from the past is Tony Perkins, the former GOP state representative and current director of the D.C.-based Family Research Council. Last week, Perkins told Politico that Louisiana supporters are encouraging him to run against Vitter. Perkins also went ahead and fired a shot across the bow, telling the D.C. paper: “Can people feel a sense of trust in [Vitter] to publicly stand with him and support him and help him? I know I still get some questions. I think he is certainly vulnerable [to] a challenge from the right — a candidate without issues.” Put Perkins or Cooksey on the ballot beside Daniels and Vitter and it’s difficult not to define the race as a contest of morals.

Which brings us to the Democrats.

Congressman Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville has quickly become party royalty. Many even wanted him to challenge superstar Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2007. Last year, he was also being urged to take on Vitter and told The Independent on a few occasions he was eyeing the race. But as the only Louisiana Democrat in the Democrat-controlled House, his fortunes in the Lower Chamber are better than ever. Now he says it’s practically out of the question. “Never say never,” Melancon says, “but I’m not contemplating a run at this time.”

Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans is also a favorite son of the party and could hold his own against Vitter, but most consultants agree that Louisiana will only send one Landrieu sibling to the Hill (U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is his sis). Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco has also been tiptoeing around the race, but she says she’s only helping with recruitment efforts. Part of that help could come in the form of cash, since Blanco still has $2.3 million in her campaign account.

More likely is a bid by former Acadiana Congressman Chris John, who now serves as chief of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. While John is perfectly positioned for a reentry into politics, he’s staying mum about challenging Vitter for now. “I’m sorry — at this time I have no comment,” John wrote in an e-mail last week while on vacation.

For starters, John has the Blue Dog credentials that the electorate has taken a liking to in recent years, now has access to deep pockets in the energy sector, and at 49 is young enough to hit the road hard. John could also make the Lafayette region competitive again, since it has long landed in the GOP column. Having Blanco, a fellow southwest Cajun, in his corner would likewise be a boost. But most of all, John would undoubtedly have fire in his belly. Don’t forget that it was Vitter who knocked John out of the game in the 2004 U.S. Senate race.

Finally, there’s Jim Bernhard, CEO of Shaw Group and short-lived head of the Louisiana Democratic Party. Bernhard didn’t reply to a call for an interview, but he’s been shaking the bushes for months. Sources close to the party say his personal wealth has scared off a few potential candidates, but until he goes on the record, his campaign can be found in the maybe column.

That takes us full circle back to the only declared candidate: Vitter. He’s under fire from a former friend, a well-known porn starlet and a handful of maybes. Even from his own party, there are folks encouraging Secretary of State Jay Dardenne — a man seemingly born to be governor, not U.S. senator — to take on Vitter in the Republican primaries. It all amounts to a race that has countless moving pieces, but as the clock ticks down to 2010, the competition will shape up. Then it will be up to voters to decide if Vitter, or another candidate not linked to an illegal prostitution ring, should represent them in Washington, D.C.