Armed with the support and financing from the political establishment, a long-time veteran office-holder with high-name recognition and few apparent political negatives runs for a vacated seat in the US House of Representatives. He is opposed by younger candidates with less money and virtually no name recognition whatsoever beyond their respective bailiwicks.
Turnout for the race is light and it seems like the “blessed” candidate will easily emerge triumphant.
But one of the challengers somehow pieces together the financing to get his message out and runs to the hard right while constantly peppering the favorite’s credentials as a Republican and as a conservative.
In the end, the insurgent stuns the politirati by winning.
The story could apply to either the contest between former Governor Dave Treen and then ex-State Representative David Vitter for the seat that was previously occupied by Congressman Bob Livingston or the recent election between Jeff Landry and retired General Hunt Downer for the GOP nomination in the Third Congressional District.
The only differences are that Downer’s grandson didn’t get lost in the woods before the election and Treen never lost his lead until the night of the runoff.
Both elections were political textbook David v. Goliaths.
Like Treen before him, Downer by all means should have won the seat. He started off on top and began a continuous free fall after the first of Landry’s attacks appeared in people’s mailboxes and on talk radio.
Did Downer simply assume the Republican nomination was his and that he needed to marshal his money for the general election against a well-financed Democrat?
Did he not invest in a tracking poll that would have alerted him to his spiraling poll numbers?
Did Downer not appreciate the political landscape that demanded a strategy applicable to the environment?
The direct mail and electronic media offered by Downer’s campaign could be charitably described as bland or overly defensive. In the runoff, the message was just plain angry intended more to send his opponent into the general election with bruises than to salvage his candidacy.
Downer should have read Vitter’s playbook from 1999 and understood the political temperament of the most conservative voters who dominant the sliver of the Third District that are registered Republicans.
Downer made the mistake of running a generic campaign that plays well in a general election but doesn’t excite the party base voters who tend to be very conservative and distrustful of people who have been in government very long. Downer went into a sniping contest with a shotgun while Landry targeted a small segment of the electorate.
Granted this is probably the best argument against the closed primary as it encourages pandering to a particularly crowd for the nomination while ignoring the masses who will pick the actually winner.
Had this been an open primary, Downer would have undoubtedly run first and likely won the seat. But it wasn’t and you’d think a man with his military background would have applied the most basic principles of Sun Tzu into his campaign strategy, more precisely the terrain determines the tactics.
You could argue that his paid political advisors should have known better, but someone who has been in politics since Gerald Ford was president?
As the closed primary system makes its valedictory swirl down the toilet, it has claimed one last political casualty in Downer.
The GOP primary presented a more extreme political environment since the Louisiana Republican Party made the decision to exclude registered independents, though judging from the runoff margin, even the indies might not have been able to bail out a campaign that was almost TKO’d in the primary.
Had Downer sought the seat when Congressman Billy Tauzin retired in 2004, Vitter would not be facing Charlie Melancon in a US Senate race right now.
Though a year removed from an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, Downer was well liked in the region and had his standing in the race overwhelmed by Bobby Jindal’s rockstar candidacy. Downer finished first in the heart of the district, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, and had room to grow.
Unfortunately for Downer, the congressman’s son jumped in which cut the former speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives from the funds he needed to make the race.
Had this election been held two years later, Downer would have benefited from the return of the open primary, where running to the Right of Barry Goldwater doesn’t pay the same dividends as it does in a closed party primary- though there are no assurances that the Third District will still exist after reapportionment as population erosion trims yet another seat from Louisiana.
The Downer campaign proves that having the most endorsements, money and name recognition don’t make one politically invincible. Especially in a closed primary.
Dardenne Gets Help from Villere?
Republican Secretary of State Jay Dardenne caught more than his fair share of grief from State GOP Chairman and fellow lieutenant governor candidate Roger Villere yet it was Villere’s presence in the race might have set Dardenne up in a strong position in the runoff..
Though the underfunded Villere finished sixth in the field with 7%, by remaining on the ballot the party leader might have bled enough votes off of country singer and Republican Sammy Kershaw to allow Democratic Caroline Fayard to slip into the general election.
While some have tried playing the expectations game to dismiss his first-place showing, Dardenne will benefit from Vitter’s coat-tails in an election cycle where Republicans are expected to exert more influence than they typically do.
Had Villere dropped out two weeks before and endorsed Kershaw, the former would have given the singer’s candidacy additional credibility, publicity and likely moved most of his supporters in that direction.
A Dardenne-Kershaw would have benefited not only Jindal, who needs a Republican to win the post, but the state’s junior senator as well by further demoralizing Democrats in the state. Though at this writing, it doesn’t appear that the governor is going to be lending any Republican in Louisiana, including his own political interests, a hand in this cycle.
Mike Bayham is a political consultant in southeast Louisiana. He posts his blog on politics at www.mikebayham.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]