The Real Lessons of the Louisiana Vote

Washington Matters

The Real Lessons of the Louisiana Vote

Democrat Don Cazayoux won a special House election in Louisiana Saturday, capturing a seat that Republicans have held for 33 years. Now both sides are trying to spin the results for political advantage, obscuring the important lessons to be learned.

Cazayoux (pronounced KAZH-oo) beat Republican Woody Jenkins for the seat vacated by Rep. Richard Baker, who resigned to take a lucrative lobbying post. For the last three decades, the district has been heavily Republican, electing Baker repeatedly and voting for George Bush over John Kerry, 59-41 in 2004. It was the second Democratic victory in a GOP stronghold in two months. In March, Democrat Bill Foster won a Republican seat in Illinois. A Democrat also won the most votes and forced a run-off election in Mississippi next week for a House seat held by Republicans for 13 years.

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Republicans poured $1 million into the Louisiana campaign to run ads linking Cazayoux to Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and Obama's controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The win allowed Democrats to crow that an anti-Obama campaign won't work, while Republicans said it almost did, with Jenkins cutting Cazayoux's lead from 13 points to 3 in the last week of the campaign.

Both are partially right but both also miss the more important lessons of this special election:


-- The quality of the contenders matters. Democrats are in a strong position to make gains on the congressional level in large part because they've been able to recruit stronger candidates and because they're more willing to allow them ideological independence. No Democrat objected when Cazayoux ran away from the party leadership and cast himself as a pro-life, pro-gun conservative. The GOP had to settle on Jenkins, a weak candidate who lost earlier contests when stronger challenges decided against running. That pattern -- which was first evident when Democrats seized control of the House and Senate in 2006 -- is playing out all over the country, much to the GOP's dismay. Consider Virginia, where former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner has just launched his run for the Senate. He's widely excpected to capture that GOP seat, in part because the strongest potential opponent, Rep. Tom Davis, a popular centrist Republican who is leaving the House, decided not to run because of the long odds of winning and the tough primary fight he would have had with a more conservative candidate.

-- The Democratic presidential race can limit gains at the congressional level in a kind of reverse coattails effect. The anti-Obama ads did cut into Cazayoux lead, and if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, that will rally the Republican base, boosting turnout in many swing districts. Democrats will need a plan to encourage split tickets in areas where their national ticket is weak.

 -- But anti-Obama or anti-Clinton sentiment won't be enough to avert big Democratic gains. Many GOP congressional candidates have their backs against the wall because the electorate is so unhappy with the direction the country has taken and they blame that mostly on Republicans. To have any chance, they need to find  moderate candidates in moderate or swing districts, but the party's conservative core shows no signs of being more accommodating. It still has tight control over the party's direction, even with the more independent John McCain at the top of the ticket. It doesn't help that many Republicans are still living in a dream world, insisting the outlook isn't that bad. Consider, for example, the article in today's Washington Times that suggests it's the Democrats who are on the ropes.

The evidence all points in the opposite direction, with Democrats likely to pick up two to four Senate seats and up to a dozen House seats.