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Rodney Gets Respect

Democrats Haven’t Found Challenger

Democrats in Louisiana and Washington, D.C., are still reeling from last year’s defection of Rep. Rodney Alexander to the Republican Party.

Although the demographics of Louisiana’s 5th district suggest it is fertile ground for Democrats to field a strong challenger in 2006, the party may be hard pressed to find a candidate.

In one of the biggest surprises of last year’s election, Alexander switched parties at the filing deadline. This left the Democrats without a legitimate candidate and guaranteed a Republican win in the district.

Shocked and dismayed, Democrats first labeled Alexander a “turncoat” and “traitor,” and then threatened to sue him if he did not return Democratic donations to his campaign. Alexander, who was narrowly elected in 2002 with strong Democratic Party support, did make refunds en route to a resounding victory over two opponents in the Nov. 2 open primary.

Alexander took 59 percent of the vote. Democrat Zelma Blakes, a political unknown, won 25 percent, and former state Rep. Jock Scott, a Republican who had been encouraged to run by some GOP leaders before Alexander switched parties, took 16 percent.

Anger from Alexander’s former allies remains.

“There’s a great deal of resentment,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed said. He added that Democratic leaders are hoping that “the repulsive way” in which Alexander left the party, along with the fact that Alexander himself showed that they “can elect a Democrat” in the district, will help encourage candidates to run.

But sources within the Louisiana Democratic Party concede that the search has been slow so far.

“We don’t have anyone specifically who we are planning on running,” noted one party figure, adding that “it’s kind of early in the cycle still. We’re trying to make a game plan.”

John Maginnis, publisher of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly newsletter, thinks the Democrats could be in for a hard time in their attempts to come up with an acceptable candidate.

“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “When they were suing him they were trying to find someone who” could mount a viable challenge. “All the officeholders said they were supporting Rodney. The governor [Democrat Kathleen Blanco], the state Reps, everyone.”

Although the Northeast Louisiana district is 30 percent black — usually a good sign for Democrats — the white population is “very conservative,” according to Maginnis.

“Reagan took away the Yellow Dog Democrats,” he said. “They agree with the GOP on issues across the board, from abortion to gun control.”

When pressed to come up with a name, Maginnis suggested Marjorie McKeithen (D), who ran for the House in 1998 and narrowly lost to Rep. Richard Baker (R), 51 percent to 49 percent, in the adjoining 6th district. She has the added bonus of name recognition, since her father, Fox McKeithen, is secretary of state, and her grandfather was a former Louisiana governor. So far, however, she has shown no inclination that she plans to run.

The names of two Democratic state legislators have been floated as well: state Sen. Rob Marionneaux and state Rep. Bryant Hammett. Neither would confirm any intention of taking a shot at a House race.

Louisiana’s Republicans are relatively unconcerned about Alexander’s prospects for a third term.

Brian McNabb, political director of the Louisiana GOP, said that “Alexander is a very popular Congressman, especially in the 5th.” McNabb recalled the difficulty that his own party had in finding someone to run against the Representative as a Democrat last year.

“We were urging people to run, and we approached some state Representatives who could be a viable candidate,” he said. “They just said, ‘Look, he’s a nice guy, he’s unbeatable in this district, thanks but no thanks.’”

McNabb also pointed out that the political makeup of the district is rapidly changing.

“A lot of folks in northern Louisiana were switching from Democrat to Republican” last cycle, he said. “I think it was around 20 to 30,000 voters.”

That being said, party identification does not always matter very much to the voters of Louisiana’s 5th Congressional district. In 2000, the district, supposedly made up of a majority of Democrats, gave the Republican candidate for Congress, then-Rep. John Cooksey, 69 percent of the vote. Two Democratic candidates combined for only 28 percent.

The increasing number of Republicans in the district is clearly not a good sign for Democrats. But Speed said Democrats hope that “some of the votes [Alexander’s] going to take … like Social Security reform are going to put him in a tough spot with his constituents.”

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