BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — In 2002, a public hospital physician named Bill Cassidy donated to Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's first re-election campaign. A year later, he used a newspaper letter to the editor to criticize Republican gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal as a disaster for Louisiana's health care system.
That's no surprise from a liver specialist who once backed Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis for president. Cassidy argued in a 1988 newspaper letter that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush would protect a bloated military budget, while Dukakis would have wider and better priorities.
Now the 57-year-old Cassidy is a Republican congressman who rejects his more liberal history and directs his critiques at President Barack Obama. And that may be enough for Cassidy to win a runoff Saturday against Landrieu, the Democratic senator he once supported.
An expected Cassidy victory would give Republicans 54 seats when the Senate convenes in January. Yet voters are left to wonder just what kind of senator Cassidy would be.
He touts his tenure working and teaching in Louisiana State University's academic hospitals, saying in a recent debate that his political career is a "continuation of that service." But Republicans and Democrats agree he's made his campaign more about Obama than about his own vision.
"I'm not sure most people know much about him other than that he's a congressman and a doctor," said Thibodaux Mayor Tommy Eschete, a nonpartisan elected official who describes both Landrieu and Cassidy as effective and accessible.
Landrieu quipped about Cassidy at a debate, "He wants to talk about everyone else's record but his own."
A Cassidy spokesman did not respond to a request for an interview with the congressman.
At Louisiana State University, in the heart of Cassidy's congressional district, sophomore William Bollinger of Prairieville said his impressions of Cassidy come exclusively from television ads. "The only thing I hear is that Mary Landrieu is a horrible person and Obamacare is going to ruin us all," Bollinger said.
Cassidy's strategy parallels what Republicans did to win a half-dozen Senate races in other states Obama lost in 2012, and the Nov. 4 results confirmed that it works in Louisiana, too. Landrieu led the primary with just 42 percent, significantly less than in her previous races. According to exit polls, just 18 percent of whites backed Landrieu, and almost three out of four whites said they strongly disapprove of Obama.
Yet even as Cassidy capitalizes on a polarizing president, his statements and pursuits as a physician and public figure suggest he doesn't fit neatly into the partisan divide that currently defines Capitol Hill. Nor does he boast one of the big personalities common to Louisiana's colorful political history.
Since his election to Congress in 2008, Cassidy has declined to pursue budget earmarks — federal money directed to specific projects, usually in a congressman's district — and he's railed against federal spending and debt. He identifies himself as a member of the Tea Party Caucus and the conservative Republican Study Committee.
But he's also joined with Landrieu to push a water resources bill critical to finance flood protection in south Louisiana, and business and civic leaders in his district — many of whom aren't taking sides publicly in the Senate race — describe his office as helpful when they are trying to win federal grants. They also say he joined other Louisiana congressmen to privately urge Jindal not to reject federal transportation money for a high-speed rail line connecting New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Jindal, a fierce Obama critic with his own White House ambitions, refused the money anyway.
Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans described Cassidy as inconsequential. "People don't even know his name in D.C.," Richmond said.
In a brief state Senate career before going to Washington, Cassidy tried unsuccessfully to overhaul the state's health care system. Landrieu notes Cassidy's most ambitious proposal — dead on arrival in the legislature — would have created a health insurance exchange that resembles key components of the Affordable Care Act he's voted dozens of times to repeal.
Cassidy also argued to change the way Louisiana distributes money to treat the uninsured, but he didn't question the fundamental existence of the charity hospital system where he spent his career. Jindal has since privatized virtually the entire network and closed the Baton Rouge hospital where Cassidy worked.
Cassidy's history was enough for many conservatives to back third-place finisher Rob Maness, a tea party favorite who cast Cassidy as a liberal hiding behind the GOP label. Maness has since endorsed Cassidy.
Associated Press writer Melinda Deslatte contributed to this report.
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