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Louisiana Lightning

John Moves Quickly to Mobilize D.C. Donors, Breaux for Senate Race

Rep. Chris John (D-La.) is moving quickly to maximize his sharp fundraising edge among lobbyists even as a second serious Democratic candidate entered the race to replace retiring Sen. John Breaux (D).

John convened a meeting Thursday of his Washington, D.C., steering committee that included Fred Hatfield, Breaux’s chief of staff, and dozens of senior lobbyists.

“We win if I raise $1 million more” in the first quarter of 2004, John said in an interview after the meeting.

John also spoke to a variety of lobbyists and interest groups at a candidate retreat last week sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

“It wasn’t an accident that [the DSCC] had Chris John involved with lobbyists and allies of their efforts,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “[They] want him to thrive in the race in Louisiana and thrive in his fundraising in the first quarter.”

Those meetings came as state Treasurer John Kennedy (D) officially entered the Senate race late last week.

“Nobody will outwork me,” Kennedy vowed in an interview Monday. “Nobody will be more specific on the issues.”

Wealthy businessman Jim Bernhard (D), whose deep pockets had a number of John supporters concerned, has decided against running, said several D.C Democratic sources. Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell (D) is also mentioned as a candidate but is not expected to run.

Rep. David Vitter (R) appears to have the GOP Senate field to himself.

Kennedy’s decision to run complicates efforts by the DSCC to clear the field for John in hopes of avoiding a runoff, where they believe their chances of victory are lessened.

Under Louisiana election law, all Senate candidates will run Nov. 2 in an open primary. If no one receives 50 percent, the two top votegetters regardless of party advance to a Dec. 4 runoff.

“These [Democratic] candidates will have to work it out for themselves,” said DSCC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. “But we think it is important to unify behind a single candidate.”

That opinion is not unanimously held in Washington, however.

One lobbyist with Louisiana ties maintained that it is “not such a bad idea to have a runoff,” while acknowledging “Chris [John] wants to do this heads up.”

John is clearly attempting to use his own connections — built over his eight years on Capitol Hill — and Breaux’s tacit endorsement of his candidacy to monopolize all of the money funnelled into the race from Washington, with a major emphasis on banking a huge cash-on-hand total in his April quarterly filing.

At last week’s steering meeting, the first since John formed a Senate exploratory committee, roughly 80 people attended — far more than originally anticipated. The group included Melissa Maxfield, a lobbyist for Comcast, Chuck Loveless of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and Kent Knutson, lead lobbyist for Home Depot, according to sources in attendance.

John told the assembled gathering that he expected Breaux to potentially help him raise money both in and outside of Washington.

John’s finance director, Paul DiNino, estimated that the campaign needs to raise roughly $5 million for the race — John ended December with $1.1 million in the bank. Vitter had $1.8 million on hand at that time.

The John campaign “is going to attempt to do everything in their power to raise as much money as they can” in the first quarter, said one Louisiana Democratic operative.

Kennedy said he is “going to work hard to break into the D.C. community” despite John’s institutional advantage with Washington donors.

“The national party wants the best candidate, and I am going to try very hard to show them I am the best candidate,” he said, noting he hired Penn, Schoen and Berland to conduct a poll on his behalf. The survey showed Vitter with 34 percent, John with 16 percent and Kennedy with 15 percent.

Kennedy won his current post in 1999 by ousting a sitting state treasurer and was re-elected in 2003. He briefly ran for governor last year but dropped out of the race before the filing deadline.

Kennedy officially filed with the FEC on Monday and begins well behind John in fundraising.

He has roughly $1.1 million in a state campaign account but cannot directly transfer any of that money to a federal committee.

Kennedy said he has already fielded a number of calls from contributors to his state account who asked to have their money refunded so that they can rewrite him a check for his Senate campaign.

“I will go raise new money too,” he pledged.

Recent history has shown that Kennedy may struggle to crack John’s Washington fundraising front.

In the open Senate seat race in South Carolina, DSCC officials made it abundantly clear that they were behind state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) and believed a clear primary field was the only way the party could compete in November.

Undaunted, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble (D) entered the primary with support from several key state officials. After just three months, however, he dropped out of the race after falling far behind Tenenbaum in fundraising.

Even so, Kennedy believes that the size of the candidates’ bank accounts will not be the determining factor in the race.

“You have to have enough money to articulate your message, but what wins races is your ideas and whether people believe you,” he said.

Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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