Louisiana: Second time a charm?

Posted: Mar 17, 2006 12:05 AM

Louisiana is the least Southern of the Southern states. Home of jazz and jambalaya, not fried chicken and sweet tea, the culture is a blend of hearty people, descendents of colonists under many flags. Strongly religious, it is the only state in the Southeast with a huge Catholic population, a relic of Spanish and French colonialism. Louisiana’s unique characteristics lend to its unpredictability, especially on Election Day.  

Louisiana is also home to a unique system of selecting officials. As the only state in the nation without a primary system, parties do not nominate candidates. Candidates from all parties run against one another on Election Day in November, with the top two vote getters advancing to a runoff in December. 

Which is why the race for the 3rd District is, realistically, a rematch. In 2004, Charlie Melancon, Billy Tauzin III and state Senator Craig Romero all sought to succeed longtime Representative Billy Tauzin, Tauzin III’s father. Tauzin III led the way in the general election with 32 percent, while Melancon squeaked by Romero with 23.9 percent and 23.1 percent, respectively. Ultimately, Melancon defeated Tauzin III by a mere 569 votes. 

Craig Romero is still rather bitter about the outcome of the 2004 election. He complained vociferously about the Louisiana Republican Party and the National Republican Congressional Committee — both of which backed Tauzin III in the general election—and their tactic of pushing him aside to support Tauzin III. Romero thought that the Republicans should have backed whoever made it through the general to the runoff, without picking sides beforehand. 

Truthfully, had Romero focused less on his Republican opponent in 2004 — he campaigned vigorously against Tauzin III, instead of against Melancon — he might already be sitting at his desk in Cannon House Office Building, where Congressman Melancon now sits. Furthermore, much of the bad blood between Tauzin III and Romero during the general election caused many Republicans to stay home on the day of the runoff, pushing the 569-vote winning margin to the Democratic side. Melancon’s victory was astonishing; in the current political climate, Democrats just don’t wrestle seats away from Republicans. 

Romero said he has faith that his 2006 campaign will result in a Republican victory. "I think it was a hiccup of an election cycle," Romero said, as the 3rd District voted 60 percent in favor of President Bush in 2004. 

Romero also said he believes that political party will and should be a factor in the next election, with a Republican president and Republican majority in both chambers of Congress. "It's important to have somebody in the majority party up there," he said.

In fact, the Republican Party is beginning to show some signs of backing Romero. Rising star Congressman Bobby Jindal, (R-1st), appeared with Craig Romero in the 3rd District for a bit of grippin’ and grinnin’ recently. Jindal, who lost his 2003 governor’s race to Kathleen Blanco is rumored to have statewide aspirations again, and his endorsement could carry a lot of weight. Jindal’s support, coupled with that of other state party operatives, could bring valuable campaign dollars to Romero, who raised an astonishing million dollars, all without accepting a single dollar from political action committees.  Both Melancon and Tauzin III outspent Romero almost 2:1. 

As usual, in a race where a Republican is seeking to replace a Democrat in a conservative district, Romero is trying to paint Melancon as a leftist out of touch with Louisiana voters. “We need a Congressman who will stand up for strong conservative family values, not stand in the aisle with the liberals in Congress," he said.

Melancon argues that he won his seat by doing exactly the opposite: emphasizing his conservative views on social issues, opposing abortion, supporting Second Amendment rights, and insisting on maintaining the sanctity of marriage.   Congressman Melancon is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a shrinking group of mostly Southern Democrats, who at times buck their party on principle. 

Of course, Congressman Melancon thinks his local ties and efforts in Washington will pay off with a return trip to the Capitol in 2006. The 3rd District encompasses industries that require congressmen to bring home the bacon. The bulk of the 3rd’s economic base is either heavily subsidized or heavily protected, but the bleak economic outlook of the 1990s rebounded and gave way to increased prosperity. Much of the economic activity revolves around subsidized and protected industries such as shrimping and sugar cane plantations, or industries heavily scrutinized by national media: petrochemicals, and offshore oil and natural gas drilling. 

Melancon says among his priorities is protecting those jobs, as well as creating new jobs. He tried to block passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement — and ultimately voted against it — which, he said, could lead to decreased sugar prices and job losses.

What is the one trump card that could swing this election left or right? Hurricane Katrina. The 3rd District runs mostly along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast and surrounds New Orleans on three sides, so it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. If Romero is able to paint Melancon as a friend of the bumbling Kathleen Blanco or incompetent Ray Nagin, he could earn some valuable points with Louisiana’s peculiar voters. 

Both Romero and Melancon understand the impact of the hurricanes on the election. Romero said, “The hurricanes we suffered last year only increased my belief that we need stronger leadership representing our district in Congress.” He added, “We need a congressman who is in the majority party who can help get things done. We need a congressman who has the power to fight for Louisiana’s jobs, to rebuild our economy and actively ensure that the federal government is a help not a hindrance.” Melancon is actively positioning himself on the side of his constituents on the issue; he has maintained a high profile in the district post-hurricane and bucked the leftist party leadership to join a congressional commission investigating the disaster response. 

Of course, none of this makes Melancon a weak candidate — he can point to plenty that he’s tried to do in his district, especially in the wake of Katrina. Moreover, he has the advantages of being the incumbent — just one whose determined challenger will better backed and better prepared than in 2004. This race is a toss-up and could slide either way in 2006, regardless of national trends. Frankly, 3rd District voters are too occupied putting their lives back together to worry about national politics.