Jim is right that the Jenkins loss does indeed signal “rough terrain ahead for Republicans in congressional races.” But there is also reason to think that Republicans may retake that very seat in November — and even that Jenkins might be able to do so.
Jenkins is an interesting story. He ran not just twice but three times for the US Senate, in 1978 and 1980 in kamikaze missions where he did better than expected both times, and the third time having it snatched away from him by a suspiciously high turnout in 1996 engineered in the last three hours of the day by then-New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. The key there was that GOP legislators stupidly had put a gambling measure on the ballot for that election rather than for an earlier one, so there was a ton of casino money “on the street” to help Morial bus his voters to the polls. Even so, Jenkins “lost” by just 6,000 votes, and proved that at least 1100 of them were fraudulent. But somehow his aggressive push for an investigation backt hen gave him the image of a sore loser which, combined with his image as an extremist (Ollie North connections, pro-life outspokenness in stark terms), have made him a figure less than acceptable to country club Republicans. He lost in the biggest part of the congressional district, the usually GOP-heavy East Baton Rouge Parish partly as a result of those factors. But he’s a good man, albeit a stubborn one who refuses to run conventional campaigns.
Anyway, he lost Saturday, by a close margin, in part because a GOP-leaning independent pulled a lot of votes away from him (although my sources down there say she pulled almost as many votes from the Dem as from Jenkins), and in part because that district is just flat-out not the same demographically that it was when Bush won it so handily in 2004. Even then, it was a fairly marginal district, with Richard Baker holding it several terms back only by the skin of his teeth over a conservative Democrat whose father was a GOP secretary of state and whose grandfather was governor in the 1960s. Since Katrina, the district has become more Democratic, with lots of poor, largely black refugees from New Orleans settling there permanently. All of which means that any Republican running for the seat against an appealing candidate like Democrat Don Cazayoux would have had a tough time.
Now, here’s where it gets REALLY interesting. A fairly liberal black state representative named Michael Jackson is angry at the national Democratic Party for favoring Cazayoux over him in the Demo primary. He already has announced that he will run in November as an independent. He is hoping that if Obama is the nominee, he, Jackson, will be able to ride a heavy black turnout to victory in a three-way race. What this means is that whomever gets the GOP nomination in the fall — even Woody Jenkins — effectively will be running against not one but two Democrats who will be splitting the votes in the center and left. That leaves an opening for the GOP to retake the seat even if the GOP candidate gets only 34% of the vote (although the likelihood is that it will take a good 40% to win, because the votes won’t split in perfect thirds). JenkinsÂ could do it if he gets the nod and motivates the religious right and some of his working-class folks (he’s always been good with blue-collar workers) to turn out heavily at the polls. Somebody else like Secretary of State Jay Dardennes (if he runs; so far there is no indication that he wants to do so) could win by recapturing some of the country clubbers who clearly opted for either Cazayoux or the independent Ashley Casey on Saturday. (Even a GOP state Rep. Diane Winston, “dissed” Jenkins BEFORE the election this time, sniffing haughtily that he wasn’t the right sort of Republican.)
What this all means is that this loss should not have happened, but it was NOT an easy race to win by any means, and it WILL be extremely competitive again in the fall if the GOP nominates a reasonably heavyweight candidate.
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