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Special Election in Louisiana Proves Politics Is Still Local

Louisiana voters just gave folks inside the Beltway a powerful reminder that former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) knew whereof he spoke: All politics is local. Bayou voters, many of whom are still struggling almost three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita turned their lives upside down, taught Republicans an expensive lesson in the dangers of trying to nationalize local elections to distract people from local concerns. We’ll soon know whether the Republican partisans anxious to win at all cost and their special- interest allies got the message.

[IMGCAP(1)]Voters in my old backyard of Baton Rouge elected Democratic state Rep. Don Cazayoux in a special election Saturday to fill the seat previously held by Rep. Richard Baker (R), who resigned to become a hedge fund lobbyist. What happened in the 6th district election has important implications for another upcoming special election and could very well be a bellwether for all upcoming races this year.

How did a Democrat like Cazayoux win a seat that had been in Republican hands for the past three decades, a district President Bush won easily in 2000 and 2004? By knowing that all politics is local, and by calling a skunk a low-down dirty possum.

Cazayoux is a respected legislator whose values reflect those held in the socially conservative district filled with new residents courtesy of Katrina and Rita, including some of my own displaced New Orleans folks. Knowing they had their work cut out for them, Republicans tried to inject national politics into the race by attempting to tie Cazayoux to Democratic Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — a biracial man and two women.

Cazayoux, on the other hand, ran a local race focused on local issues. He relentlessly stuck to his core message of fighting for change for Louisianans on the issues they care most about: jobs, children’s health care, education and continued relief from Katrina.

While Cazayoux was busy campaigning about helping those still struggling in Louisiana and bringing positive change to Washington, Republicans were trying to win by hook or by crook. National conservative groups, a veritable who’s who of Washington special interests, spent nearly a million dollars trying to brand Cazayoux as an Obama/ Clinton/Pelosi tax-and-spend liberal Democrat. The National Republican Congressional Committee and Freedom’s Watch even brazenly skirted federal campaign finance law by coordinating their attacks.

At the end of the day, they failed, making this race the second time this year that Republicans unsuccessfully tried to hold onto a conservative-leaning House seat by injecting national politics into the race. In March, a very similar dynamic played out in the special election in Illinois’ 14th district, held by former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) for more than two decades. In that race, Democrat Bill Foster won a dramatic victory by talking about his background as a successful scientist and businessman and by keeping a similar laser-like focus on local concerns.

But the story doesn’t end there. In less than two weeks, voters in Mississippi’s 1st district will go to the polls in another special election to fill a vacant House seat, and Republicans are already gearing up their smear machine. Considering the spin they’re already offering to explain their humiliation on the bayou this weekend, it looks like they are sticking to their losing game plan.

Even as Cazayoux prepares to be sworn in on the House floor, Republicans are arguing that their strategy really worked. They are trying to make the case that their ads linking Cazayoux to Obama, Clinton and Pelosi closed the gap in the final weeks of the campaign. The facts tell a different story.

An Anzalone-Liszt Research poll conducted March 16-20 for the Cazayoux campaign showed Cazayoux up 49 percent to 44 percent. Seven weeks and nearly $1 million later, the gap narrowed by just 2 points. Even this small movement can be argued as the natural tightening of a competitive special election in a Republican-leaning district. The GOP argument is simply not supported by the facts.

The other pillar that Republicans are trying to use to spin this defeat is that their own candidate, Woody Jenkins, was flawed. You’ll get no argument from me here. Jenkins brought enough ethical baggage to this race to fill the Louisiana State University football stadium, including tax liens against his broadcasting company and well-known ties to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

But what does it say about the Republican brand when, using their argument about the purported Obama/Clinton/Pelosi drag, all they can attract are flawed candidates for special elections in historically Republican districts? What does it say about the party of Lincoln, Douglass and Roosevelt that the GOP once again would prefer to use race as a wedge to divide people in a state where folks are working hard to heal such divides?

When you sift through all the attacks and spin, Republicans have now suffered their second stinging defeat in a row in seats that were never even thought to be in play. In both cases, they counted on national politics to trump local issues. In both cases, it didn’t. Yet despite these results, it looks like all systems are go for the same failed game plan to be used in the upcoming Mississippi special election and, one suspects, to be used in the presidential contest.

Republicans would be wise to learn from their mistakes in Illinois and Louisiana before applying the same cookie-cutter approach in Mississippi and elsewhere. After all, wasn’t it Albert Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.

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