Political Hay

An Unlikely Primary in Louisiana

Rob Maness's difficulties defy the Tea Party vs. establishment narrative.

By 7.1.14

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It’s been a month since Louisiana Republican Party chairman Roger Villere took to the stage at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans and announced that, by a unanimous vote of the party’s executive committee, the LAGOP would be endorsing Congressman Bill Cassidy over Colonel Rob Maness and state Representative Paul Hollis as its candidate against Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu.

In that time, several of the party’s parish executive committees—including three major units in Jefferson and St. Tammany Parishes in suburban New Orleans and Rapides Parish in the central part of the state—have followed suit to endorse Cassidy. The St. Tammany endorsement was perhaps the most interesting of the three, in that Maness is actually a member of that committee.

A lack of local political support has been a problem for Maness since he began campaigning for Landrieu’s Senate seat a year ago. He’s managed to secure some endorsements from organizations comprising what some have called the Tea Party Establishment—the Tea Party Express, the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project, and the Tea Party Leadership Fund, to name a few—and when Sarah Palin endorsed Maness in late May it gave his campaign a boost in stature.

But what Maness has not been able to achieve in his insurgent campaign to unseat Cassidy as the Republican standard-bearer against Landrieu is any outward support from Louisiana political figures. He’s yet to pick up the endorsement of a local sheriff, past or present state legislators, parish presidents, mayors, assessors, or even local Tea Party groups of any size.

And with the latest spate of Cassidy endorsements giving the impression of a consolidation of party support behind the three-term congressman, it would appear that Maness is trying to build an effective campaign organization completely from scratch without help from any of the local power brokers a statewide candidate typically cannot live without.

One would expect that a conservative insurgent like Maness would be resonating in Louisiana, a blood-red state getting redder all the time, but he’s yet to crack the 10 percent mark in any recent polls. Cassidy ranges anywhere from the mid-thirties to the mid-forties, while Landrieu seems to have a ceiling in the low 40s in most polls. In a head-to-head race, Cassidy has now pulled ahead of Landrieu; he’s beating her by three points according to the Real Clear Politics average.

So why isn’t a Tea Party message such as Maness’s moving the needle? Several reasons.

First, and most importantly, Maness isn’t running against Cassidy in a Republican primary. Louisiana has a “jungle primary” system, in which candidates of all parties are lumped together in a single primary contest. If none of the hopefuls manage a majority in that primary, then a runoff election will decide among the top two finishers. In this race, the runoff is scheduled for December 6, just five weeks after the November 4 primary.

Typically, a jungle primary favors the candidates furthest to the left and the right, but Landrieu presents herself as a “centrist” Democrat and her state party only seems to run hard left candidates, when they run candidates at all, in majority-minority districts. The dynamics of the race therefore favor a center-right, rather than hard conservative, candidate. And Cassidy, whose record and campaign style fits that center-right mold, has benefitted. Cassidy is difficult to categorize as a “RINO”—his American Conservative Union lifetime score is an eighty-five (Landrieu checks in with a lifetime twenty from ACU), and he holds a seventy-six lifetime score from the Club For Growth (Landrieu has a fifteen)—but he’s not a dogmatic hard-core conservative either.

Given the current national mood, which the majority of Louisiana’s Republicans share, you would expect the voters to look for a candidate with a bit more conservative fire in the belly than Cassidy. But this isn’t an open seat, and Republicans have been unsuccessful in three prior attempts to knock Landrieu off. Picking up a sixty-point swing on those scorecards, rather than the eighty or eighty-five a pure conservative would promise, is plenty enough for most conservative voters around the state even if Cassidy might not be their dream candidate.

Maness has other problems besides the difficulty of his candidacy.

Chief among them is that he’s not a native Louisianan. Maness’s thirty-year Air Force career led him all over the country, including a five-year stop at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City. He settled in Madisonville, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, after his retirement. But Louisiana is a state where some 80 percent of the population is native-born—and “where’d you go to high school?” is a frequent question. It shouldn’t be a political impediment to be a transplant, but it is.

Maness’s struggles with building a local organization were hamstrung by his lack of local connections, and things have only become worse when the majority of his initial campaign team were replaced by political operatives from out-of-state; his current campaign manager, Michael Byrne, is late of Steve Lonegan’s unsuccessful run against Cory Booker in the special election for Senate in New Jersey last year.

The problems of geography and a lack of connections have led Maness into a campaign which seems to struggle to get traction even on issues where he would otherwise find public favor. Immigration is an example. In the 2010 Senate race, incumbent David Vitter scored a knockout blow on Democrat Charlie Melancon with a devastatingly funny ad accusing his opponent of backing red-carpet treatment for illegal aliens; the ad was savaged by the national media as xenophobic and borderline racist, but it was a huge hit with the state’s voters.

Maness has a hard-line position on immigration that might resonate in a similar fashion to Vitter’s, but he’s had little success in turning immigration into a winning issue against Cassidy despite calling the latter a “carbon copy of Eric Cantor” on amnesty. Part of that is that the charge is tough to make stick—Cassidy has a “B+” score from NumbersUSA on immigration—but part of it is also that Maness’s team hasn’t been able to produce messaging that resonates with Louisiana voters on the issue.

And with each attempt to paint Cassidy as an insufficiently conservative opponent to Landrieu, he runs into another problem: the perception among some that he’s a stalking horse for the Democrat. Maness’s employer upon leaving the Air Force was the New Orleans-based utility Entergy Corp., which has been reliable in its political donations to Democrats and quite friendly to the Landrieu family. When Maness spends more time attacking Cassidy than Landrieu he unwittingly gives weight to the probably-specious charge that he’s not who he says he is.

He’s even struggling with his outreach to Louisiana culture. Maness’s most prominent TV ad so far is an entertaining spot showing him wrestling an alligator. “In Louisiana you’ve got to be tough,” he says in the ad. “One moment of weakness and the alligators will eat you alive.” Except while Louisiana might be portrayed in reality shows like Swamp People as a swamp covered by vicious prehistoric lizards, the majority of Louisianans have never seen an alligator in the wild—and the ad simply reinforces the perception that he’s not from here and what he knows of Louisiana is what he’s seen on TV.

Maness’s problems, then, are not ideological but structural. He’s an unknown in a statewide campaign, he lacks a natural connection to Louisiana voters, and he can’t convince conservatives who mostly want to beat Landrieu that their default choice isn’t any good.

In a party primary for an open seat, this might be a different race. But Louisiana isn’t so simple—as Maness, and the Tea Party “Establishment,” are learning.

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About the Author

Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics.