TOPICS > Politics

Louisiana Runoff May Decide Senate Balance of Power

BY Larisa Epatko  October 29, 2004 at 3:50 PM EDT

And if control of the Senate is uncertain after Election Day, it could fall to Louisiana to determine which party will run the upper house next year.

Along with Vitter, the major contenders for retiring Democratic Sen. John Breaux’s seat are Democrats U.S. Rep. Chris John, state Treasurer John Kennedy and state Rep. Arthur Morrell.

Since 1975, the state has had a unique election process whereby it foregoes primaries, allowing all candidates to compete on Election Day. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top candidates, regardless of party affiliation, enter a runoff about a month later. This year, the runoff is Dec. 4.

Wayne Parent, political science professor at Louisiana State University, said all eyes could be on Louisiana that day if the Senate is split between Democrats and Republicans after Nov. 2. “We’re in a unique place this year,” he said.

At this point, it appears that runoff would likely involve Vitter and John.

A Verne Kennedy poll conducted Oct. 23-26 showed Vitter with 49 percent of the vote, followed by John with 21 percent, Kennedy with 14 percent and Morrell with 2 percent, reported National Journal’s Cook Election Preview. The poll, published by the Associated Press on Thursday, surveyed 600 voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

The lead that Vitter, as the sole Republican, is maintaining in the polls makes sense, Parent said, since the Democratic vote is divided among three candidates.

But in addition, Vitter is a fairly conservative candidate whose campaign has effectively emphasized his differences with President Bush, such as his support of importing drugs from Canada, said Parent.

However, Vitter’s strong showing Nov. 2 may not propel him to a victory a month later, Parent continued. During the runoff, the Democrats will shift gears from firing shots at each other to aiming at Vitter, and Democratic voters will coalesce around the Democratic candidate, he said.

“Chris John is in a solid second place” as his support steadily climbs in recent polls, said Zac Wright, John’s campaign communications director.

“The runoff race will be a whole new dynamic, strictly a two-man race,” he said.

And both campaigns are gearing up for a possible runoff.

“We’re planning and preparing for a runoff,” a Vitter spokesman told CongressDaily. “We have not changed our game plan of getting 50.1 percent on Dec. 4.”

The presidential election, meanwhile, may have an impact on the outcome of the Senate race. Louisiana, which has supported the winner in the last nine elections, is again likely to go for President Bush.

“President Bush is more popular here than Republicans are normally,” Parent said. Mr. Bush is a “next door neighbor,” and Louisiana is a strong military state, so the Iraq war plays better in the Bayou State than it may in other places, he said.

The support for the president may carry over to the GOP candidate in the Senate race. “If Vitter wins outright here, it will be on President Bush’s coattails,” Parent added.