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Louisiana: House Members Take Sides in Saturday’s Gubernatorial Primary

With the Louisiana open gubernatorial primary just two days away, five of the seven members of the state’s House delegation have weighed in on behalf of a candidate.

Although Congressional endorsements are not expected to play a decisive role in the wide-open contest, the heavy involvement of several Members is already fueling speculation about their own political futures.

Leading that pack is Rep. David Vitter (R-La.), who announced Friday that he was throwing his support behind former Health and Human Services Department official Bobby Jindal (R). Previously, Rep. Jim McCrery (R) had endorsed Jindal.

Vitter is widely seen as the odds-on Republican candidate if Sen. John Breaux (D) decides against seeking re-election in 2004. Breaux has said he will not make a decision until after the governor’s race concludes in an almost certain runoff on Nov. 15.

“A lot of people told me that I should not get involved in any way, shape or form but I decided that this election was too important,” Vitter said. “Conservatives will soon realize that Bobby is the candidate that will be in the runoff.”

Vitter’s likely opponent should Breaux retire — Rep. Chris John (D) — has not endorsed any of the four serious Democrats seeking the nomination.

Neutral observers note that with all of the top gubernatorial Democrats hailing from John’s 7th Congressional district, it would make little political sense for him to risk angering any of them by endorsing an opponent.

Breaux and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) also remain neutral.

Rep. William Jefferson is the only one of the three House Democrats to endorse. He is backing former Rep. Buddy Leach (D).

Rumors are also flying through the Bayou State regarding Rep. Billy Tauzin’s (R) political future and his active endorsement of state Rep. Hunt Downer (R) in the governor’s race.

Under one scenario making the rounds on Capitol Hill, a factor in Tauzin’s decision to serve as campaign chairman for Downer was a pledge that the state legislator would not seek the 3rd district seat when Tauzin retires. This would enable Tauzin, who is rumored to be in line for a plum lobbying post, to have a hand in selecting his successor.

Tauzin Communications Director Ken Johnson said Tauzin’s support of Downer is personal, not political, and other state Republicans note that the two men were roommates when they served together in the state Legislature.

“He has a 30-year personal friendship that transcends politics,” Johnson said.

Rep. Richard Baker (R) has also endorsed Downer.

Although many national strategists continue to speculate about the next moves for Breaux and Tauzin, it is clear that until Louisianans select their next governor, few other political decisions will be made.

Under the state’s election laws, the two top votegetters on Saturday, regardless of party, will advance to the Nov. 15 runoff.

Until recently, Democrats had expressed confidence that they had a strong chance of landing two candidates in the runoff, ensuring they would win back the governor’s mansion after eight years of Republican rule.

But while Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) remains one of the frontrunners, and state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub (D) is given an outside chance of advancing, neither Leach nor state Sen. Randy Ewing (D) has caught on as many Democrats expected.

Instead, Jindal has caught fire and emerged as the most likely candidate to secure one of the runoff spots.

In the most recent survey conducted in the race Blanco led the field with 23 percent, Jindal had 22 percent and Ieyoub had 14 percent. Leach took 9 percent, Ewing 8 percent and Downer 6 percent. Public Service Commissioner Jay Blossman (R) took 1 percent but has since dropped out of the race and endorsed Downer.

Given the likelihood of the gubernatorial runoff featuring Jindal and either Ieyoub or Blanco, speculation has already begun as to whether one or several of the Democrats who come up short this weekend might quickly pivot to run for the Senate.

Blanco, Ieyoub and Leach would all apparently take a look at the Senate race if they fail to win the governorship and Breaux retires, according to Democratic sources.

Ieyoub ran for Senate once before when he narrowly missed out on a runoff slot in the 1996 race to replace Sen. Bennett Johnston (D). Now-Sen. Mary Landrieu received 14,000 votes more than Ieyoub, which was good enough for second place behind former state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R). Landrieu went on to win the general election by 5,000 votes.

Leach served one term in Congress from 1978 to 1980 and might be interested in a comeback, sources said.

A look back at the history of Louisiana’s off-year elections shows that they can produce top-tier candidates in the following federal election.

Johnston ran for governor in 1971 but was edged out by Louisiana political icon Edwin Edwards (D). He then ran a primary challenge to Sen. Allen Ellender (D) in 1972, who died before votes were cast. Johnston went on to serve four terms in the Senate.

Similarly, Landrieu finished third in the 1995 gubernatorial primary before turning around to run in the 1996 Senate race.

Clearly aware of that possibility, John has been moving around the state for much of this year, raising money and lining up support for the possible open-seat race. He ended June with $719,000 in his House account.

Aside from John, the only other undecided Member is freshman Rep. Rodney Alexander (D).

Alexander was elected by a 974-vote margin in a December 2002 runoff and said Tuesday that he is too focused on his own re-election bid to pay the governor’s race all that much attention.

“I’m just trying to take care of my politics,” he said. “As a freshman I am not in a position to be suggesting to folks who they should be voting for.”

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