Seeking to unify Republicans behind a single candidate in Louisiana’s open 7th district, three influential Members of the state delegation hosted a fundraiser for heart surgeon Charles Boustany (R) on Monday night.
Reps. Jim McCrery, Richard Baker and Billy Tauzin were the sponsors of the Washington, D.C., fundraiser to benefit Boustany; McCrery is also circulating a letter to his House colleagues asking them to give to Boustany’s campaign.
“Their backing and encouragement is going to be very important in this race,” Boustany said. “It gives us significant momentum.”
McCrery said Boustany represents “our best chance to win this district.”
“I know the other [Republican] candidate,” McCrery added. “He has run before and lost before.”
That other candidate is Lafayette school board member David Thibodeaux, who has unsuccessfully sought the southwestern Louisiana seat in 1986, 1990 and 1996.
“I really wish they would have contacted me and given me a chance to address these things before going forward,” said Thibodeaux.
Thibodeaux added that the only practical effect of Baker, Tauzin and McCrery’s endorsement is to “set the stage for an all-Democratic runoff.”
Republicans have never held the 7th district and have never even advanced a candidate to the runoff. But this year’s open seat is widely seen as their best chance to take the seat.
Rep. Chris John (D) is retiring from the House to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. John Breaux. Three Democrats, plus Republicans Boustany and Thibodeaux, are vying to succeed John.
On the Democratic side, state Sens. Willie Mount and Don Cravins are the early frontrunners. Former District Judge Ned Doucet is also running.
The district includes the swampy heart of Cajun country. One town within its borders, Crowley, produced not just John and Breaux but also former Gov. Edwin Edwards (D). So the district has deep Democratic roots, as evidenced by its voter registration.
As of June 11, 58 percent of registered voters were Democrats compared to just 22 percent who were Republicans. Another 20 percent are independents or belong to other parties.
Still, the district is conservative, especially on social issues, and Republicans have been gaining ground in recent years. In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush carried the district by 13 points, his third strongest showing in the state’s seven Congressional districts.
In a December 2002 runoff, then-state Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell (R), in a losing effort statewide, carried the district, 51 percent to 49 percent, over incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu (D).
Under Louisiana law, if no candidate receives 50 percent in the primary, the two top votegetters, irrespective of party, advance to the runoff.
The last two times the 7th district came open — in 1986 and 1996 — two Democrats emerged from crowded primary fields to face one another in a runoff.
Given that history, national Republicans believe their best chance to win the seat is to unify behind a single candidate who can make it into the runoff. Under that scenario, a Republican’s chance of victory should improve, politicos say.
“I would have preferred Boustany to be the only Republican,” McCrery acknowledged. “He is clearly the stronger of the two.”
In the letter McCrery is circulating to his colleagues, he calls Boustany “the proven conservative in this campaign.”
Much of the excitement in national circles about Boustany revolves around his solid fundraising in the first quarter of 2004.
He raised $341,000 from Jan. 1 to March 31, only $4,250 of which came from political action committees. He reported $330,000 on hand.
“Dr. Boustany is doing an excellent job of raising money in Louisiana first and getting the grassroots component of his campaign organized,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti.
Boustany, who also has significant personal wealth, said that “this is the first time in the history of the 7th district that a Republican has been able to raise money and gain broad support.”
Thibodeaux has not filed a financial report with the Federal Election Commission but does have former Rep. Clyde Holloway and former Gov. David Treen on his finance committee, which should lend credibility to his fundraising efforts.
“The Republican Party has not rallied around my opponent,” Thibodeaux asserted.
The most money he raised during his past Congressional runs was $150,000 in 1996.
While acknowledging he will be outspent by Boustany, Thibodeaux pointed out that polling for his campaign puts him well ahead of Boustany and with higher name recognition and favorability ratings than he had at the end of his 1996 race.
He estimated that Boustany would have to spend at least $500,000 simply to match his name recognition.
“Based on the polls, if there is a Republican in the runoff, it is going to be me,” said Thibodeaux. “There is not enough time or money to change that.”
Thibodeaux said that his past Congressional runs should be viewed as a net positive, not as a negative.
“My campaign for Congress has been a process, not an event,” explained Thibodeaux.
In 1986, Thibodeaux placed fourth with 13 percent behind three Democrats, including Jimmy Hayes, who went on to win the seat. (After the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, Hayes switched to the Republican Party.)
In 1990, Thibodeaux challenged Hayes, losing 58 percent to 38 percent, although he only narrowly lost Lafayette Parish, one of the major population centers of the district.
Thibodeaux’s strongest showing was in 1996 when he seemingly advanced to the runoff with John, only to have a recount put him in third place by just 8 votes.
“We had our pocket picked,” Thibodeaux said.
Since that defeat, Thibodeaux has been elected twice to the Lafayette school board.
Looking at his past runs, Thibodeaux describes himself as the “Jake Delhomme of this race.”
Delhomme, a former star quarterback at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and benchwarmer in the National Football League, led the Carolina Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2004 after his first year as a starter.
“How long did he wait to get his chance?” asked Thibodeaux, noting that the Panthers lost the game to the New England Patriots in overtime.