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New GOP candidate enters field in effort to defeat Sen. Landrieu

20th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Despite U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s carefully constructed effort to keep GOP rivals out of Republican Bill Cassidy’s effort to take down incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu next year, the Tea Party has managed to inject a candidate of its own.

Retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness announced his candidacy this week for U.S. Senate against Landrieu in 2014, and no sooner had he, that the Tea Party leadership nationally indicated that Maness was their candidate—not the already announced contender, Baton Rouge GOP Congressman Dr. Bill Cassidy.

The Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC formerly associated with Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, emailed supporters on Wednesday highlighting Maness. “We still need to vet Col. Maness to see if he’s someone SCF can support, but we’re excited about his potential,” SCF Executive Director Matt Hoskins wrote. “It’s encouraging to see people run for office who aren’t career politicians and who aren’t part of the political establishment.”

Maness served for 32 years in the U.S. Air Force. A combat veteran, his later career took him to the Pentagon, then to the Air Force Global Strike Command in Bossier City, La., and finally landed him in New Orleans upon retirement as director of safety and training at Entergy Services Inc.

Rep. Cassidy’s votes have soured him in the minds of several Tea Party-affiliated groups. His support for various Louisiana-important issues, such as opposition to the new Federal Flood Maps—which would raise coastal property insurance premiums by 20%–and his willingness to accept some deals with the Obama Administration on health care and the budget, have proven a negative litmus test for the Right. The arbiter of fiscal conservatism, the Club for Growth, only awarded the Baton Rouge Congressman an 80 percent rating in their 2012 scorecard, making it unlikely the group’s political action committee will endorse him in this Senate race either.

In other words, Maness’s entrance provides a major headache for Cassidy and a tonic against fear for the endangered Senator Landrieu. It’s reported that David Vitter had worked diligently to clear the path for Bill Cassidy, convincing North Louisiana Congressman Dr. John Fleming to stay out of the race. Vitter argued that two Republicans challenging a sitting Democrat would prove too costly and ultimately futile, and his labors had—up until Wednesday—kept the field clear so that the Baton Rouge Congressman could concentrate his resources on Landrieu.

And, Cassidy will need to, as Landrieu herself picked up a likely major boost in seniority should she win a fourth term. With the retirement of Montana Senator Max Baucus, La., Senior Senator is in line to become Chairman (or ranking member should the Democrats lose the majority) of the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee. It is a critical appointment for a Senator hailing from an oil producing state, and it would allow Landrieu a wealth of influence on a myriad of issues—including calls for Louisiana to receive a fairer share of off-shore royalty revenues.

Interestingly, Landrieu stood only as the third Democrat in line in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s pecking order, following Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon and Tim Johnson of South Dakota. Johnson, like Baucus, chose to retire at the end of his term, due in large part to the increasingly conservative-lean of his home state voters. Wyden, though, safe in a Blue State, is also next in line for the Finance Committee gavel in the 114th Congress — an opening on one of the most powerful committees in Congress. It would “be hard for the tax policy technocrat to pass up,” said the Capitol Hill Newspaper Roll Call.

Regardless, campaign contributions will flow in to Landrieu as a result of her new prospective chairmanship, and Cassidy must not only match the monetary tide, but at the same time, provide the electorate with a compelling narrative that the state’s conservative trend trumps the advantage his opponent now brings to the table as the Energy & Natural Resources head. His task proves even tougher considering that Landrieu’s closest ally on the GOP side, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, stands as next in line to become Chairman of that Committee if the Republicans do reclaim the majority.

Landrieu endorsed Murkowski over her Democratic and Republican opponents in the 2010. (Murkowski lost her GOP primary to a Tea Party challenge, only to come back to win re-election to the U.S. Senate from Alaska as a write-in candidate.) The two are incredibly close friends, both hailing from storied political families, and since Landrieu bucked party discipline to back her friend, it is not inconceivable that Murkowski—even less of a party loyalist than Landrieu—could return the favor in 2014.

Why Col. Maness turns this from a costly race to a nightmare scenario for Cassidy has to do with Louisiana’s Open Primary System. David Vitter knows that better than anyone. He won his Senate seat in 2002 in the open primary, due to a divided Democratic field. Chris John, John Kennedy, and Arthur Morrell spent so much time battling one another for a runoff slot, that they allowed Vitter to quietly push past 50 percent. All had held their fire on his “extracurricular” activities, known even then as The Louisiana Weekly had broken the Wendy Cortez-prostitute story two years before.

Yet, the hooker scandal had not made Vitter a national joke the way it would in the wake of Debrorah Palfrey’s DC Madam list coming public years later. In 2002, however, each Democrat, and especially front-runner Congressman John, had planned to use the prostitute allegations when they faced Vitter in the runoff. They never had the chance, dividing the Democratic base as they did, and Vitter began his term unscathed.

This time, Landrieu could easily run with no Democratic opposition, while Cassidy fends off a challenge which divides the right. Moreover, should Lisa Murkowski join Mary Landrieu’s GOP allies in Metro New Orleans in a cross-party endorsement, the La. senator has a good chance to pull off a primary win. It is her best bet, because if the U.S. Senate comes down to Landrieu’s chairmanship versus a GOP majority in a December runoff, and she’s the 50th vote, La.’s Caucasian conservative electorate may not be as sympathetic.

That is what Cassidy hopes for, and the Doctor & BR Congressman starts the primary with a heavy fundraising edge over Maness. He raised $525,000 in the first quarter and ended March with $2.5 million in cash on hand. And, Cassidy remembers that Charlie Melancon also hopes that a divided field might harm David Vitter, and it made little difference in the GOP candidate’s RE-ELECTION to the U.S. Senate.

Before reverting back to the open primary, Vitter did have a credible conservative third candidate in his race against Melancon. For a brief window of years, Louisiana went back to a closed primary system for Congressional races. That did not stop Republican State Representative Ernest Wooten, however, from switching to Independent and running in the General Election.

At the time, a candidate needed a simple plurality to emerge victorious, and Wooton had openly expressed a hope that if he could not overtake Vitter, he might provide the difference in U.S. Senator’s defeat.

In the end, Vitter received about 57 percent of the total vote while Melancon got 38 percent. Wooton finished with only 8,167 votes—or one percent of the total cast.

This article originally published in the May 20, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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