Rep. Chris John’s (D-La.) official entry into the Bayou State Senate race has set off a pitched battle to replace him in his ultra-competitive Cajun Country district.
Five serious candidates — three Democrats and two Republicans — have already begun to put together campaigns for the 7th district seat, making a runoff the most likely outcome.
The most organized Democrat at this point, according to several informed party sources, is former Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ned Doucet.
“I am going back and getting in touch with friends and acquaintances in Lake Charles and Lafayette,” Doucet said Monday. He has created an exploratory committee for the race and said “a whole bunch of fundraisers” are on the docket for the coming weeks.
Doucet argued that unlike the other Democrats in the race he has ties all over the district, which is anchored by Lake Charles in the west and Lafayette in the east.
Born and raised in Vermillion Parish — in the district’s far eastern reaches — Doucet served one term in the state Legislature from 1976 to 1978, representing Vermillion and Acadia Parish. The following year he took the judgeship in which he represented five of the eight parishes that comprise the 7th district.
He resigned his judgeship earlier this year to focus full-time on the Congressional race.
Doucet’s family name is well-known in the northern end of the district, thanks to longtime St. Landry Parish Sheriff D.J. “Cat” Doucet, he said.
John will not endorse a candidate in the race, aides maintain.
His last name may also provide him a point of entry in Washington as his son, Shane, is a lobbyist in town. Shane Doucet worked for John for four years.
State Sen. Willie Mount (D) is also seen as a strong contender, with a solid base in the western half of the district.
She served seven years as mayor of Lake Charles, resigning that post when she was elected to the state Senate in 2000. Mount does not have to give up her state Senate seat to run for Congress.
Mount said she brings a “unique perspective” to the contest. “I have served in both local and state government,” she said.
Mount is personally close with Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) and was heavily involved in the governor’s come-from-behind victory in December 2003.
Mount has hired Ray Teddlie, Blanco’s lead strategist, to serve in the same role for her campaign.
One Louisiana Democratic operative noted that Mount does not have a particularly close relationship with either organized labor or the trial lawyer community, two major sources of campaign cash in Democratic Party politics.
“Do business types give to her or the Republican?” the source wondered.
The X-factor among Democrats is state Sen. Don Cravins.
Cravins was not initially expected to run but said he decided to become a candidate because “in my political life there will be no better time to get into it than now.” Cravins was re-elected to a third term last year and will be term-limited out in four years.
Despite his insistence that he is in the race to stay, some Democrats do not believe Cravins will ultimately run, pointing to his past habit of flirting with other political offices before bowing out.
Most recently, Cravins considered a primary challenge to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) before backing out.
Cravins, who is black, said the district’s 25 percent black population was “part of the calculation” as he considered the race.
“I believe that I would capture the majority of [the black] vote,” said Cravins, adding that in his current legislative district more votes are cast by whites than blacks.
“Louisianans are beyond voting on race and recognize a person’s ability to be successful and represent the interests of the district,” Cravins said.
A Democratic observer conceded that if Cravins was able to unify the black vote, he would likely secure a spot in the runoff but noted that he has faced serious primary challenges in the past and would not be able to count on blacks voting monolithically.
Under Louisiana election law, all candidates run in the Nov. 2 open primary; if no candidate receives 50 percent, the top two votegetters, regardless of party, advance to a Dec. 4 runoff.
Some state and national Democrats have expressed concern that if Cravins is their candidate in the runoff they could lose this swing seat.
Although John held the seat easily since winning it in 1996, a number of statewide Republican candidates have carried a majority there, including then-state Rep. Woody Jenkins (R) in the 1996 Senate race against Landrieu and then-state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell (R) in her challenge to Landrieu in 2002. President Bush would have won 55 percent of the 7th district vote in 2000.
Sensing an opportunity, national and state Republicans are working to coalesce support behind Charles Boustany (R), a former Democrat with significant personal funds to spend on the race. Lafayette Parish school board member David Thibodeaux is also running on the GOP side.
Boustany is expected to receive a major institutional boost when state Sen. Mike Michot (R) officially endorses his candidacy in the coming days. Michot was considered the Republican frontrunner in the race but took his name out of consideration late last year.
“A Republican should get into the runoff,” said Boustany. “The three Democrats are going to split that vote in a variety of ways.”
Boustany, a heart surgeon by profession, has an interesting political profile.
He switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican immediately following Bush’s victory in 2000. He is married to a niece of legendary former Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards.
He is also of Lebanese descent, which even Democrats admit will help him in this district where Arab-Americans have a major political voice.
Boustany said that his strong support in the business community will make it tough for Thibodeaux to stay financially competitive.
Thibodeaux “is going to to have some difficulty getting mainstream Republican support,” predicted Boustany.
Thibodeaux has run for the 7th district seat three times, challenging then-Democratic Rep. Jimmy Hayes twice before running for the open seat in 1996.
In that contest, Thibodeaux missed the runoff by just eight votes. John went on to beat a fellow Democrat 53 percent to 47 percent in the runoff.