|GOP Bets on a Risky Strategy to Oust Landrieu|
3, 2002 -- If there is a national story in Tuesday's election, it is the battle
by both parties to take control of Congress. But like the 2000 presidential election,
it appears the final chapter in the Senate may not be written until weeks after
Election Day. |
The potential delay in knowing who will represent the Bayou State stems from a uniquely Louisiana law. On Nov. 5, residents will vote in an open primary from a crowded slate of nine candidates. If no one receives a majority of the ballots cast, the top two vote-getters will square off in a Dec. 7 runoff.
The incumbent, first-term Sen. Mary Landrieu, is battling a serious challenge from three Republicans: U.S. Congressman John Cooksey, Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell, and state Rep. Tony Perkins.
Landrieu has maintained a lead of some 20 points in most polls, but recent surveys have placed her under the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. If current trends play out - and there is, according to campaign-watcher Charlie Cook, a one-in-four chance they will -- the Democrats' single-seat majority in the Senate may be decided in that runoff.
It is a scenario many Republicans in the state say they would relish.
"With the outcome of the Senate at stake, a December runoff in Louisiana would be the next best thing to the Saints being in the Super Bowl," Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin told Time Magazine's Karen Tumulty. "There would be money and madness everywhere."
The GOP strategy of running multiple candidates with the goal of forcing Landrieu into a runoff in December emerged months ago. Each of the three major Republicans came into the race backed by different wings of the party and from different regions of the state.
Cooksey, a three-term U.S. congressman and ophthalmologist, has the support of Republican Gov. Mike Foster and hails from the northern region of the state. Terrell is a former New Orleans City Council member and the only Republican woman ever to win statewide office. Terrell also nabbed the endorsement of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in September, a move that angered many in the governor's office. Perkins is a state representative from the Baton Rouge area who has been championed by conservative Christian groups.
If the three Republicans can force a runoff, Louisiana and national party officials expect the dynamics of the race to change dramatically.
"If that happens, the race will be about national issues," state Rep. Charles Lancaster (R) said in the Aug. 18 Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate. "People won't be voting for or against Mary because she got them a bridge in some town."
Republicans hope the race is fought over national control of the Senate. Even during the primary, all three Republicans have made support of President Bush and the actions of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) one of the key topics of debate.
"Tom Daschle is the traffic cop for gridlock," Perkins said in a candidate debate on Oct. 30.
As far back as her announcement to run this summer, Terrell has criticized Landrieu for voting with the president only 74 percent of the time.
"Seventy-four percent is not enough -- it is the 26 percent that are the policies the people of Louisiana want to go forward," Terrell said.
But others have said that the GOP tactic may have been a mistake from the beginning.
"I got news for [the Republicans]. ... It ain't happening. She is going to win in the first round because of their ill-conceived strategy," Roy Fletcher, a political strategist who worked for both Gov. Mike Foster and Cooksey, told the Sunday Advocate in September. "Their strategy was that they would split up the vote. The problem is they are only splitting up the vote they had in the first place."
Fletcher and others also argued that running multiple candidates would divvy up the Republican fundraising base. All three GOP candidates have had trouble raising more than a million dollars while Landrieu has raised nearly $7.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The candidates have also had little luck in digging into Landrieu's poll numbers. Most surveys in the last two weeks have Landrieu at 44 to 45 percent. Terrell is a distant but relatively solid second with 15 to 20 percent. Cooksey garners approximately ten percent and Perkins brings up the rear in single-digits.
"[Louisiana State political scientist Wayne] Parent gives Landrieu a 55 percent to 60 percent chance of winning outright. If she does not, however, she probably would face Terrell, also a moderate female candidate from New Orleans. If so, Landrieu's chances then would dwindle to 50 percent at best, Parent predicts," The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Oct. 30.
But the campaign has for the most part not focused on the nationally significant "what ifs" of the race. Instead, the candidates have squared off over Social Security and support for the president, abortion and education.
In recent days, Landrieu has focused on Social Security reform as an issue that distinguishes her from all three GOP rivals.
During this week's debates, the Democratic incumbent reiterated her opposition to a Bush administration proposal to allow younger workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes; a move she worries will lead to the privatization of the system.
"I'm opposed to privatization," Landrieu said. "I think it's the wrong way to go at the wrong time."
All three Republicans have backed the proposal, saying the system was headed for bankruptcy unless some steps are taken now.
"The alternative to what Sen. Landrieu proposes is to cut benefits or raise taxes. We need to look at other alternatives," Cooksey responded in the forum.
As the days before Nov. 5 dwindle, Landrieu and Terrell have taken to the airwaves in a deluge of commercials. But experts and the candidates agree the real race is on the ground, where all four camps are working hard to get voters to the polls. Voter turnout is expected to be low, but the campaigns are all keeping an eye on that 50 percent mark. If the Landrieu campaign doesn't hit the mark on Election Day, most observers say all bets are off.