By: Ginger Gibson
November 3, 2013 10:28 PM EST
BATON ROUGE, La. — The Republican road to capture the Senate goes through Louisiana, but the path here is getting more complicated.
For a while it appeared that the race was set. Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu would face Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, a physician who has been in public office for less than eight years. Polls show a competitive matchup.
But Cassidy is having trouble getting conservatives in his state to sign onto his campaign and conservative opposition is growing. Last week, the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsed Rob Maness, an Air Force veteran who has been working the grass-roots route through Louisiana. Despite efforts to show conservative solidarity, many in Louisiana still view Cassidy — who once supported Democrats and donated to Landrieu — as a moderate.
Right now, there are two Republican candidates in the race, and if more jump in, then the GOP vote in next November’s “jungle primary” — in which the top two vote-getters advance, regardless of party — will be split. That will increase the chances Landrieu could win outright with more than 50 percent of the vote — or the Republican candidate will be badly bruised heading into a runoff.
Historically, runoffs, which fall in December, have favored incumbents.
“It’s easier going up against an incumbent that is well entrenched to have one candidate and everybody rally around that candidate,” said Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), who considered challenging Landrieu but backed down after Cassidy got in the race.
“But Louisiana is a very conservative state and I don’t know, it’s kind of out of my hands now. … I think there is likely to be a couple more significant competitors in that race, not including me. It could over the coming months become much more active. There may be more right-leaning candidates. … There may be a couple of surprises in there before it’s all over with.”
Cassidy is likely to be fending off conservative challengers — or at least rumors of them — until the state’s filing deadline on Aug. 22.
“The reason he’s having trouble with the right wing is that they know he’s really — in his heart of hearts — not one of them,” said Bob Mann, the former communications director for Democratic Sen. John Breaux and Gov. Kathleen Blanco. “Too many people around Baton Rouge, at least, know him as a fairly moderate Democrat who tacked hard right when he got into politics.”
Maness, who says he’s driven his pickup 23,000 miles campaigning in the state, insists it’s not about Cassidy and that his campaign is focused on Landrieu. He said too many of her opponents have taken a moderate approach.
“I’ve looked at the history of her victories. With the exception of one election, the candidates have been the same type of folks — the real issue is about her and the Democratic Party,” Maness told POLITICO. “I wouldn’t be in the race if I didn’t think there was a route to victory. No race is easy, and this type of election is not as easy as what some would think.”
Cassidy, whose campaign declined repeated requests for interviews, is also trying to make the race about Landrieu.
“His campaign is focused on returning a voice for Louisiana values to the U.S. Senate in contrast to Mary Landrieu’s many years of rubber-stamping President Obama’s agenda against the wishes of her state,” campaign manager Joel DiGrado said in a statement. “As our campaign continues to grow, each day Louisianans recognize that we need to change the direction of Washington, and Dr. Cassidy’s message of service and accountability is a breath of fresh air for voters sick and tired of Landrieu’s doublespeak and Washington ways.”
The jungle primary system also often forces challengers to wage campaigns on two fronts, against both the incumbent and other candidates from their own party.
Even if a lesser-known candidate siphons off 5 percentage points, it can cause trouble for their same-party front-runner.
An August poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling asked Louisiana residents about a series of scenarios, from a Cassidy-Landrieu matchup to a more crowded field.
When just the two front-runner candidates were polled against each other, Landrieu took 50 percent and Cassidy took 40 percent. But the more candidates who were included, the worse Cassidy did.
With Maness in the race, Landrieu slipped to 48 percent while Cassidy slipped 16 points to 24 percent. Throw in Elbert Guillory, a Republican state senator from the northern part of the state who has hinted at running, and Cassidy slips to 20 percent while Landrieu is at 47 percent.
The more Republicans in the field, the more difficult it becomes from Cassidy to win outright or advance to a runoff on the first ballot and the easier it becomes for Landrieu to avoid one.
Landrieu has raised twice as much as Cassidy in the third quarter of this year — she had $5.78 million on hand compared with Cassidy’s $3.4 million.
Cassidy has been trying to prove his conservative bona fides in the House — he was was one of about 80 members who signed onto a letter by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) that was a driving force in pushing House Republican leadership to defund Obamacare as part of the government funding fight.
He voted with the bulk of the Louisiana delegation against a bill that reopened government and avoided a federal debt default.
Cassidy ran for the state Senate in a 2006 special election as a Republican but before had been a Democrat. While serving in the state Senate, Cassidy authored legislation to create health care exchanges, similar to the ones created under President Barack Obama.
His proposal, which never even received a committee hearing, has been dubbed CassidyCare by his opponents.
In 1988, while living in California, Cassidy penned a letter to The State-Times, a now defunct afternoon newspaper in Baton Rouge. In the letter, Cassidy mocked anyone who would vote for George H.W. Bush for president and suggested Louisiana residents vote for Michael Dukakis. In a sarcastic tone, Cassidy “thanked” voters for supporting Bush because the Republican president would ultimately help California by increasing defense spending while Louisiana suffered economically during the oil bust because of falling prices.
“You see, when the federal government takes care of poor people, education, health care, roads and the elderly, you people get a lot of that money,” he wrote, according to a copy obtained by POLITICO from archives of the newspaper. “If you begin to realize that patriotism has nothing to do with any of this, tell yourself that there was nothing that the Republicans could have done about the fall in oil prices. Of course, I know better.”
He continued, “Please do me one favor, dear Louisianans. Never ask yourself if you’re better off now than you were eight years ago. If you do, you might wake up, you might vote for a change.”
Cassidy’s campaign pointed to his time working in the charity hospitals, the publicly run medical system that Louisiana established to treat the poor, as part of his departure from those views.
“I would tell the 1988 Bill Cassidy he’s wrong,” Cassidy said in a statement to POLITICO about the letter he penned in 1988. “I’m humble enough to admit this, unlike Mary Landrieu, who can’t admit her deciding vote for Obamacare was wrong for Louisiana or that she may have been false with Louisianans about whether she knew from the outset that they would not be able to keep their current insurance plans under Obamacare. I’ve seen too much government failure, waste and abuse since then to agree with the Bill Cassidy of 1988.”
One plus for Cassidy could be that most of the Louisiana congressional delegation is rallying behind him.
While Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) hasn’t officially endorsed him, key staffers from the senator’s past campaign and congressional office have signed on to help.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) has endorsed Cassidy, but even his role as chairman of the Republican Study Committee is unlikely to sway many conservatives.
“Ultimately, I think you’re seeing a lot of people coalescing around Bill Cassidy,” Scalise said. “Bill Cassidy has been working hard, raising money, gaining support and frankly, he’s been very close to her in all the polling even before he spent his first dollar laying out his competing vision.”