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Louisiana Elections: Downer, 3rd Congr. Dist. Has Republicans Downer, Landry, Magar
Written by  // Monday, 26 July 2010 10:54 //
tidmoreAs the Republican candidates in the Third Congressional District Contest propel themselves towards a primary faceoff on August 28, 2010, it is stunning how much the current contest has began to reflect the inter-GOP war nearly six years ago for the same seat.   In so many ways, the fight between Hunt Downer and Jeff Landry seems a replay of the Craig Romero/Billy Tauzin III battle that ultimately brought about the surprise election of Democratic Charlie Melancon to the formally Republican-held US House seat. 

Now Melancon is running for the US Senate against David Vitter (and this week touts a campaign poll that he is statistically tied with the incumbent Republican.  Vitter’s camp argues that Melancon’s poll is far from being accurate).  Nevertheless, few give the Democrats much chance of holding the Third District in a political environment that leans strongly to the GOP.   When Hunt Downer, a recently retired Louisiana National Guard Major General, the author of the state's emergency preparedness plan, and a former Democratic Speaker of the State House of Representatives announced for Congress, quite a few prominent Democrats who were considering this year's congressional contest took a look at the former Democratic legislator's support amongst their constituents (and Barack Obama's low approval ratings in the 3rd District) and opted for another race.

That left the Democrats with attorney and local activist Ravi Sangisetty as their standard-bearer.  A newcomer to elective politics, Sangisetty has a very respectable political warchest of over $250,000 at last count, mostly his own money, but little active support from elected officials or the grassroots in the parishes of the Second District.   Senior aides to Hunt Downer admit to The Louisiana Weekly and Bayoubuzz, "Our race is on the 28th.  We're not that worried about November."

The question is, can Downer win in the all-GOP contest at the end of August?  His main opponent Jeff Landry has argued in extensive media buys and constant press releases that he is not Republican enough to draw conservative voters.

"Utter nonsense," argued Downer to this newspaper, who cited his support of stronger immigration enforcement, tax cuts, opposition to TARP, and other conservative favorites.  Downer ran for Governor in 2003 as the Conservative Republican alternative to Bobby Jindal, who at the time was courting African-American and moderate votes across the state.   The Houma State Rep. missed the runoff, and ultimately took his part-time military service into a full time role--serving as one of the Chief Generals of the Louisiana Guard.

It was in that role that Downer faced the horrors of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and later Gustav.   For two years, he slept in trailers with his troops deployed first in search and rescue, and later in clean-up and subsequent evacuations.  National experts in disaster relief began to seek the Louisiana General's advice, leading Downer to write many of the procedures used in evacuations and hurricane protections.  As the state prepares for the winds and rains of Tropical Storm Bonnie, parish and state officials will follow the emergency protocols pioneered by Downer.

If the open primary were in force for Congressional contests this year (rather than Jan. 1, 2011 as the recent legislation mandates), Downer's cross-party support amongst Independents, Democrats, and Republicans would make him an easy victor--as most independent polls have confirmed.  However, Downer must first win a closed GOP primary on August 28th, where only registered Republicans can vote.   The core of the Major General's support comes from Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, where the voters are conservative, but due to historical circumstances, remain in general registered Democrats.  They can't vote in August.

Nor can many of Downer's supporters in St. Bernard.  The Third Congressional District stretches from the suburbs of Lafayette along the coast of Louisiana and then shoots northward covering all of St. Bernard Parish.   The Islenos and Italian descended voters of the suburban New Orleans community have in recent history provided the swing votes in many of the Third District races, but they like their Cajun contemporaries often remain registered Democrats--a throwback to that party's dominance in the state as recently as the 1980s.

Downer is deeply popular in St. Bernard and in many parts of New Orleans's Ninth Ward (just outside the 3rd District) for his work in relief after Katrina and his Herculean effort to rebuild Jackson Barracks as the Louisiana National Guard headquarters when many state and federal officials sought to move the HQ out of the metro area entirely.   However, Downer must count on the proportionately smaller pool of GOP voters in St. Bernard, when the electorate's majority would easily put him over the top in the primary.

Jeff Landry has tried to take advantage of the scattershot GOP registration of Downer's Eastern Louisiana supporters by emphasizing his own Republican credentials to Republican voters from his native New Iberia Parish to Western Acadiana.   It is a familiar strategy.   Landry helped his former boss State Senator Craig Romero use it against Billy Tauzin III.

There the argument played more out of the dangers of dynastic politics, of a Democratic Incumbent-turned-Republican handing power to his son.  Regardless, Romero billed himself as the true conservative outsider insurgent.  It did not work, ultimately.  Tauzin III advanced to a runoff against Charlie Melancon which he lost by only 500 votes out of 100,000 cast, an impressive result for a 30 year old candidate running against a former State Rep. and head of the powerful Sugar Cane lobby.

There is little doubt that Romero's strong attacks on Tauzin III's conservatism and youth played a role in depressing GOP turnout in the open primary runoff, providing an opening for Melancon's narrow victory.   (Romero would go down to firm defeat in a rematch against Melancon two years later; Louisiana voters tend to re-elect incumbents, regardless of party.)

Jeff Landry was the architect of many of those rightwing attacks on Tauzin III's bonefides, and he is employing much the same strategy this time around, gambling that while the Tauzin family's loyalty amongst Cajun Democrats saved the son and heir last time, Downer has no such firewall.

Of course, dealing with a decorated Major General and former House Speaker presents a far different opponent that a 30 year old contesting his first political contest.   Downer demurred from the Congressional race six years ago, out of a loyalty to Tauzin the Congressman--an early mentor of Downer's.  Few doubt that Downer, a political institution along Bayou Lafourche, would have had much trouble earning an extra five hundred votes.

If anything, post-Katrina, Downer's political resume is even stronger.   Republicans like Generals.  Military men usually trump politicos in GOP politics, blunting Landry's message of conservative purity.   And Downer's response as to why he was a Democrat for so long, until the turn of the century, resonates with many locals, "When I registered to vote, the only party you could vote for was the Democrats.  The Republicans met in a phone booth...I've always been a conservative and the voters know that.   I was a floor leader for Buddy Roemer, but I helped override his veto of the abortion ban.  I have always stood up for my principles," regardless of party, he explained.

Some argue that Landry's proverbial wildcard is the third candidate in the GOP field.  Kristian Magar is a former National Guard officer and Oil Industry Engineer who has been actively courting support in Downer's base in Eastern Acadiana.   He is decidedly the underdog in the race, possessed of less money or poll support than his rivals.  On paper, Magar would seem to hurt Downer far more than Landry.   As some of Landry's supporters have hoped, Magar could draw enough support from Downer to allow Landry a GOP first primary victory.

However, those Landry enthusiasts often forget that Magar hails from Loreauville, Louisiana, a small community of just under a thousand in Iberia Parish.  It is a suburb, though, of New Iberia, and Magar quite likely could hurt Landry as solidly in his core area as Downer along the coast.

Regardless, the contest remains hard fought on all sides.  Downer launched his TV advertising campaign this past Friday, July 23, joining Landry on the air in media markets from Lafayette to Metro New Orleans.  The election in August 28th, the earliest regular Congressional primary in decades.  No one has any idea how such an early voting date, prior to Labor Day, will affect turnout.

 

Christopher Tidmore is on the radio weekdays from 7-8 AM, on 1560 AM Slidell/New Orleans and 1590 AM White Castle/Baton Rouge online at www.gtmorning.com.

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