Louisiana Primaries Finally Here

Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:42pm

After a one-month delay courtesy of Hurricane Gustav, Louisiana voters will head to the polls on Saturday for a belated primary election.

But despite a wild election cycle in the Bayou State, the results of just one Democratic and one Republican primary race are still in doubt, so all eyes will be focused on the New Orleans-based 2nd district and the Shreveport-based 4th district this weekend.

In the 2nd district, indicted Rep. William Jefferson (D) is fighting for his political life against a half-dozen Democratic challengers. In the open 4th district seat of retiring Rep. Jim McCrery (R), three Republican candidates are locked in a tight and increasingly nasty primary battle.

Neither of those two races will likely be decided on Saturday, since state law requires candidates to earn more than 50 percent of the vote to claim victory in Louisiana. As such, a runoff will probably be required in both contests.

After Gustav swept through Louisiana just before the state’s original September primary date, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Secretary of State Jay Dardenne (R) reshuffled the state election calendar to allow residents time to deal with the displacement and destruction caused by the storm. After Saturday’s vote, the primary runoffs will take place on Nov. 4, which will also be the date of the general election for those districts where a runoff isn’t required. The general election for districts that do require runoffs will take place in early December.

While the month delay leading up to this weekend’s primary gave candidates extra time to reach out to voters, Louisiana insiders say no candidate in the 2nd district race really took advantage and made a major impact on the dynamic of that contest during that time.

If anything, said John Maginnis, who pens a weekly newsletter on Louisiana politics, Jefferson may have gotten a slight bump from the delay because he earned a good amount of airtime during news coverage of Hurricane Gustav, and his campaign has since touted his work for the district during the storm.

“The hurricane helped all officials down here because it made them look like they were doing their job,” Maginnis said.

Despite Jefferson’s legal troubles stemming from a three-year-old federal corruption probe (and a trial that’s set to begin in December), most observers believe the nine-term Congressman has enough of a base of support to make the runoff — especially because this weekend’s vote is expected to be a low-turnout affair and the anti-Jefferson vote will be split by six other candidates.

But some public polling indicates that Jefferson isn’t the frontrunner in the primary. That distinction appears to go to former TV news anchor Helena Moreno.

Greg Buisson, a media consultant with Moreno’s campaign, said Wednesday that a campaign-sponsored poll taken last week showed Moreno leading Jefferson by 2 points, 24 percent to 22 percent.

If Moreno, who is white, and Jefferson, who is black, emerge from Saturday’s contest, it would set up an interesting dynamic for the runoff.

The 2nd district is 64 percent black and Jefferson is the only African-American member of the Louisiana delegation.

“If [Jefferson] gets in the runoff with a white [candidate] I think it’s going to be very tough to beat him because … it’s going to be tough for blacks to vote to give up the only black Congressional seat in Louisiana,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge-based pollster with the nonpartisan Southern Media & Opinion Research.

In a state that is almost one-third black, it’s an argument that might overshadow much of the anti-Jefferson sentiment that has grown in the district over the past two years.

“There’s a very compelling message that it’s not about Bill Jefferson but rather ‘shouldn’t blacks have at least one black Congressman, whoever it is, to represent us in Washington?’” Pinsonat said.

Buisson said Moreno is confident about her chances if she heads to a runoff with Jefferson. He said that, as a woman, Moreno brings a different dynamic to an election that won’t just be defined by race. He said polling has shown that Moreno appeals to female voters of all races and that the strength of the anti-Jefferson sentiment among both white and black voters should not be underestimated.

The other Democrats running in Saturday’s primary include former New Orleans City Councilman Troy Carter, state Rep. Cedric Richmond, Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee, New Orleans City Councilman James Carter and Kenya Smith, a former aide to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (D).

In northwest Louisiana’s 4th district, the GOP primary is also turning out to be hard to predict.The three-way race pits former Bossier Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Thompson — whom McCrery and national Republicans have endorsed — against trucking company executive Chris Gorman and physician John Fleming.

Polling numbers have gone back and forth over the summer and early fall. What is certain is that a lot of the candidates’ personal wealth has been dropped on the primary campaign.

Thompson has actually been viewed as the poorest candidate in the race, and he loaned his campaign more than $100,000 of his own money for the contest, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

Fleming has loaned his campaign about $650,000 and Gorman recently surpassed the $1 million mark.

All that money means there’s been a lot of television ads in this race, and Gorman has been especially prolific in that aspect of the campaign.

But a source close to Thompson said Thompson’s plan was never to carpet-bomb the district with ads in the Republican primary but rather keep a “targeted, rifle-shot approach” that brings his voters to the polls.

As the 4th district contest has dragged on for an extra month, the race has become particularly nasty, and Fleming’s and Gorman’s camps have been at the heart of the most heated exchanges about distortions of the other’s record.

With all the negative attention the race has generated and the likelihood that it could drag out for another month until the runoff, some strategists said this week that Republicans could be digging themselves into a hole before the general election even begins. Come Nov. 5, Republicans would only have a few short weeks to patch up any hard feelings and build up their favorability ratings before the December election.

Democrats are facing a primary of their own in the 4th district, but Caddo Parish District Attorney Paul Carmouche is the national party’s highly touted pick in that race. Carmouche seems all but certain to emerge from the multi-candidate primary and isn’t even expected to require a runoff.