It was a packed crowd at Huey’s, the downtown Baton Rouge watering hole named for the state’s most notable, if notorious, Democratic governor and senator, on Monday. But few in the crowd would have had much positive to say about the bar’s namesake. This was a Republican Unity Rally, and many of the state’s most prominent GOP politicians were gathered to show solidarity with Senate hopeful Bill Cassidy — who earned 41 percent of the vote in last week’s election, forcing Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu (42 percent) into a runoff.
The bar’s small stage was crowded with large personages: Sen. David Vitter and Gov. Bobby Jindal, leaders of the state’s two most prominent (and warring) factions; former congressman Jeff Landry, who will be running for Louisiana attorney general next year; state Sen. Elbert Guillory, a prominent black Republican now known for a very aggressive commercial opposing Landrieu.
Rob Maness, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who came in third last week with 14 percent of the vote, made an appearance. Maness ran an insurgent campaign backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, and he frequently threw bombs at Cassidy. But his speech at Monday’s event was the shining moment in his political career, and he made the most of it, thundering away at Landrieu’s failures and pledging his full support to Cassidy, his erstwhile rival.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, the libertarian rock star who headlined the affair, gave an exposition of his “liberty agenda,” which was met with enthusiastic applause from a crowd full of old-school Republican activists. Paul said he had stayed out of the race thus far because he couldn’t choose between Maness and Cassidy—but that he has faith in the GOP’s standard bearer going into the runoff. “I believe Bill Cassidy will defend the Constitution,” he said.
The event, covered by most local media and Fox News’s John Roberts, created a significant buzz among Louisiana Republicans previously concerned that after a brutal campaign Cassidy might be unable to put enough pieces of the electorate together to win. With Maness’s enthusiastic backing, coming on the heels of a Friday evening announcement of support by another Cassidy detractor, Tony Perkins of the Family Resource Center (Perkins is based in Washington, but he’s a Baton Rouge product and still has a home in the exurbs near town), the party is as unified in Louisiana as it has ever been.
Not just unified, but optimistic, too. Cassidy did fall a few votes short of leading Landrieu last week, but votes for the GOP candidates together totaled better than 56 percent.
Based on those numbers, it would seem Cassidy has clear sailing to the finale. But many on the Republican side are feeling a too-good-to-be-true vibe. In his speech Monday, he exhorted the attendees to keep up the pressure. “The only thing I fear is that we are overconfident,” Cassidy said.
Landrieu’s track record includes come-from-behind runoff victories in Senate races in 2002 and 1996, when Republicans had combined for better than 50 percent of the initial vote. If GOP supporters assume the race is in the bag, there is danger that they won’t turn out on December 6. That’s what the Landrieu camp is counting on. In a recently released memo her campaign manager Ryan Berni points out the 1996 and 2002 results and states “History is on our side.”
But while history might favor Landrieu — after all, as Cassidy pointed out, Huey Long was the last candidate to unseat a sitting Louisiana Senator — the numbers do not. Traditionally, the Democratic formula here for 50 percent-plus-one on Election Day has been to ensure the electorate is at least 30 percent black, and then to receive 30 percent of the state’s white vote. Landrieu managed the former last week with a massive get-out-the-vote operation in the black community, but she badly underperformed with white voters, managing only 18 percent, and there is little reason to expect that to improve given her repeated statements that President Barack Obama is unpopular in Louisiana because her state is full of racists.
Knowing the electoral math, last week the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled some $2 million in booked TV ads to support Landrieu in the runoff, replacing that commitment with an online “moneybomb” that raised a reported $400,000 as of Monday evening. The DSCC, tapped out after a grueling national cycle, clearly didn’t see a reason to spend its own resources on a long-shot re-election effort.
For her part, Landrieu has modified her message. Previously, her pitch to voters centered around her seniority, and the clout she could bring to bear as chair of the Senate Energy Committee. But when the Democrats lost the Senate majority on Tuesday — even with Louisiana’s race still undecided — that argument vanished into thin air. She has now replaced it with a non-stop attempt to indict Cassidy for supposed poor performance as a congressman.
This #WhereWasBill attack almost immediately flopped, as Landrieu attempted to paint Cassidy as a no-show in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The problem is that in the wake of Katrina, Cassidy displayed the very voluntarism and civic engagement Republicans tout as superior to the Democrats’ big-government approach. He got together with several friends and associates and in twenty-six hours set up a makeshift emergency hospital in an abandoned K-Mart in Baton Rouge to serve refugees; meanwhile a distraught Landrieu spent her time threatening to “punch out” then-President George W. Bush for a perceived lack of federal help, and then authoring a $250 billion Katrina relief bill so loaded with pork as to embarrass the state.
Landrieu then debuted a commercial containing footage of a Cassidy speech at the Republican Leadership Conference this spring, but it was so tightly edited as to make him look bizarre, a rather juvenile bit of politics that immediately attracted negative attention from Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler. Cassidy countered by linking to the speech in full, which was unremarkable, if not particularly compelling, taken in its whole.
All told, Landrieu looks like a punch-drunk boxer in the later rounds of a fight, swinging wildly in hopes of a knockout punch against a physically superior opponent ahead on points. And Cassidy, a gastroenterologist (“a career which prepared me well for politics,” he jokes) who in his day job seeks miracles of the medical kind, is now tasked with preventing one in the final four weeks of the campaign.
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