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Melancon’s Seat Prime Pickup Opportunity

Political insiders on both sides of the aisle are convinced that Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) is set to challenge Sen. David Vitter (R) in 2010, which begs the question of what happens in Melancon’s south-central district next year.

Judging by all the noise out of the National Republican Congressional Committee over the news that Melancon is considering the race, there is little doubt that the Bayou State’s 3rd district is about to rocket to the upper echelon of GOP targets.

Republicans have yet to unite behind one candidate, but state Rep. Nickie Monica has already said he’s thinking about the race.

Other credible GOP names that have surfaced are former state Speaker Hunt Downer, who is the assistant adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard, and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser Jr., whose father is the former chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party.

Democrats have been less willing to come forward with possible open-seat candidates until Melancon makes a formal announcement about his Senate plans, but one name that has emerged is Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley.

Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Chris Whittington would say Monday only that the 3rd district is going to remain in Democratic hands in 2010 and beyond.

“We have a lot of good, strong Democrats in that district should Congressman Melancon decide not to run for re-election,— Whittington said.

When news broke last week about Melancon’s renewed Senate interest, the chest-thumping from the NRCC began in earnest.

In recent months, the NRCC had been ratcheting up the pressure on the three-term Congressman with a radio and print media campaign challenging his claims of being a fiscal conservative and criticizing him for his votes on issues such as the economic stimulus bill. In addition, the committee has continually promised to put up a well-known, well-funded challenger in 2010 regardless of whether Melancon opts to leave the House behind.

With Melancon’s jump to the Senate race now seen as likely, the committee believes it has an even better shot of flipping a district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won with 61 percent in 2008.

“After months of being confronted with negative ads and hostile crowds, it seems clear that Charlie Melancon has decided he’d rather risk losing statewide than be defeated for re-election,— NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay said Monday. “This is a district that has trended more conservative while Melancon has become more liberal.—

The last time the 3rd district seat was open, Melancon beat the son of the district’s outgoing Congressman in the closest election of the 2004 cycle. In the open primary that year, Melancon took just 24 percent of the vote to Billy Tauzin III’s (R) 32 percent but ended up winning the runoff by 569 votes.

Monica said that in 2010 — when Democrats won’t have President Barack Obama on the ballot to motivate the party’s base — the 3rd district will revert back to GOP control.

“Mr. Melancon beat a young man with no experience in government to get in by a small margin,— Monica said. “The district is very conservative. It is pro-business, pro-industry, and some of the votes the Congressman made in the last six months are not going to sit well in the district. It’s going to go back Republican. I’m just hoping I’m the one— who is carrying the Republican mantle.

Downer, a gubernatorial candidate in 2003, was once considered a possible GOP candidate in the open 3rd district race in 2004. He passed on the contest because, he said, he needed to rest coming off the gubernatorial race and 28 years in elected office.

“It was a time to take a little respite from politics and focus on a few other things,— he said.

Today, Downer said, he’s rested and a House bid “is something I would consider at the appropriate time.—

But Democrats are far from giving up on the 3rd district. One Democratic strategist said Monday that having Melancon at the top of the ticket in a Senate race would give Democrats an advantage in holding his 3rd district seat.

But Democrats might have to find someone besides Wiley to carry their banner.

“I don’t have any plans at this point— to run, Wiley said.

He said that his pro-business, pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights views wouldn’t “mesh well— with Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C. He also pointed out that his support of Republicans such as Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Bill Cassidy (La.) and former Rep. Richard Baker (La.) probably wouldn’t go over well with national party officials.

But Louisiana political pundit John Maginnis, who on Friday broke the news that Melancon had decided on a Senate bid, said that a Democrat who stands up to the national party is probably the only kind of candidate who can hold the 3rd district next year.

“I think it will be very tough,— Maginnis said of Democrats’ chances. The right Democratic candidate for the district “has to be able to appeal to the business interests, raise money and say they’re going to go [to Capitol Hill] and not vote with— Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

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