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In the Hurricane’s Wake

New Calendar Shifts Louisiana Races

The revised elections calendar that Louisiana officials have devised to deal with the damage and dislocation caused by Hurricane Gustav last week has thrown a few interesting twists into an already unique Congressional election cycle in the Bayou State.

Not only have campaigns been forced to reshuffle their budgets and media advertising schedules, but it now appears likely that the battleground 4th district race will take on the air of a special election because it likely won’t be decided until Dec. 6.

On Tuesday, Democratic and Republican strategists argued over whether that factor will help or hinder the GOP’s chances of holding on to the Shreveport-based seat of retiring Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.).

This year, Louisiana was scheduled to hold its first closed primaries in three decades on Sept. 6. But last week, as Louisianans were digging out from the destruction of Hurricane Gustav, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) decided to move those primaries back a month to Oct. 4 to give voters a chance to get back to their homes and to allow maximum turnout.

Oct. 4 had originally been the date scheduled for runoffs in primary contests where a candidate did not get 50 percent of the vote. For races that need runoffs, those will be held on Nov. 4, national Election Day, with Dec. 6 serving as the general election day. For those primary races that don’t need runoffs, Nov. 4 will serve as the general election date.

Early voting for the primaries will take place Sept. 20-27, but any early ballot that was cast for the Sept. 6 primary will be counted in next month’s primary. A spokesman for the Federal Election Commission said Tuesday that officials are meeting this week to decide how the postponed primaries will affect campaign finance issues, such as whether Louisiana Congressional candidates will have to submit another pre-primary report before Oct. 4.

Only two Congressional races are expected to produce primary runoffs: the 2nd district Democratic primary, where several candidates are taking on indicted Rep. William Jefferson (D), and the 4th district Republican primary, where three candidates are seeking the GOP nod in the race to replace McCrery.

Of those two, the 4th district is the only one where party control is really in doubt.

In that race, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic state officials are lined up firmly behind Caddo Parish District Attorney Paul Carmouche, and he is expected to emerge from his four-way primary, perhaps without a runoff. That would put him in a general election with two former Republicans who are running as Independents and the winner of the GOP battle between Bossier Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Thompson, trucking company executive Chris Gorman and physician John Fleming.

Republican strategists say a Dec. 6 special election is good news because a lower turnout election will work in their favor. With the 4th district race on a separate ballot than the presidential election, Republicans say they won’t have to deal with an “Obama bump.” They speculate that the December electorate will include fewer African-American voters, who typically vote Democratic and may be motivated by Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presence on the ballot but not by Carmouche, who is white.

“If the Democrats were counting on a large turnout from the presidential election, they no longer have that,” said Thompson, whom McCrery and national Republican leaders have endorsed in the GOP race.

But Thompson did concede that “the additional 30 days of running the campaign, staying up on advertising and expenses that go along with that are certainly challenges for any candidate. … Being the only non-millionaire [in the GOP primary] we are going to go back to our donors.”

Thompson has put $50,000 of his own money into his campaign, while Gorman has loaned his campaign $497,000, and Fleming has spent $580,000 of his own money.

And while the Republican primary has been an expensive affair that isn’t expected to get any cheaper over the next month, Carmouche is expected to cruise to victory in the Democratic primary with money to spare.

But Democrats say their advantage in the 4th district will go beyond cash-on-hand and spending totals.

One Democratic strategist said Tuesday that the December general election will allow the party the opportunity to focus on the 4th district race the way it does on special elections. And the strategist said the party is confident in its ability to win special elections after going 3-0 during competitive special elections earlier this year.

“Democrats have shown we can ensure strong African-American turnout in these special types of circumstances and elections,” the strategist said.

What remains to be seen is how much money the two Congressional campaign committees and other national groups will have left over after the November elections to devote to the 4th district race. It’s also unclear how the outcome of the November general elections nationally will motivate 4th district voters in December. For example, a Democratic presidential victory combined with wide gains in the House and Senate could only serve to motivate Democrats and destroy Republican morale in the 4th district in November.

In the New Orleans-based 2nd district, it appears fairly certain that Democrats will hold the seat, regardless of when the general election is held. But the revamped election schedule could make for some interesting scenarios in the crowded Democratic primary.

John Maginnis, who pens a weekly newsletter on Louisiana politics, said he expects the new schedule will hurt Jefferson’s chances of keeping his seat.

The reason is that with other local elections set to take place on the same day, including a much-hyped district attorney race, the Oct. 4 primary date is shaping up to be a larger turnout election than the Sept. 6 election would have been. And a Nov. 4 primary runoff will certainly be a higher turnout affair than the original runoff date.

In a low-turnout election, Jefferson might have been able to force his way into a runoff by counting on a loyal cadre of supporters, Maginnis said. And with former television news reporter Helena Moreno, who is white, leading in an early August poll, Jefferson might have hoped to get into a runoff where he would be the only black candidate and then hope to emerge victorious in this 64 percent black district.

A larger turnout and more time to campaign might work to the advantage of some of the other black candidates in the race, including state Rep. Cedric Richmond or former state Rep. Troy Carter.