DIRTY SOUTH

Election Day In The Big Sleazy

Politics in Louisiana is a uniquely business. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at what’s about to go down there on Tuesday.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

You might not think a noontime political rally with two or three-dozen listeners in Lafayette, Louisiana -- a town 135 miles west of New Orleans -- is a logical place to look for one of the potentially crucial elements of the mid-term elections. And in just about any other state, you’d be right.

But this is Louisiana. And Louisiana is....different. It’s not just its accents, its terrain, its laws (shaped by the Napoleonic Code, not British common law), its heart-stopping food. It’s not even the state’s expansive understanding of what makes a credible candidate.

A few miles east of Lafayette, you can find 87-year-old former Governor Edwin Edwards campaigning for a Congressional seat, accompanied by his 37-year-old wife. The last federal position he held was Inmate--he served more than eight years for his inventive approach to acquiring money. Yet a poll last year found that Louisiana’s voters would prefer Edwards as their governor to the current chief executive, the unloved possible Republican presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal.

A few miles north, and you’re in the Fifth Congressional District, where the leading fund-raiser among Congressional candidates is Zach Dasher, nephew of Phil Robertson, patriarch of the “Duck Dynasty” family that dominates cable TV ratings.

But the Louisiana Difference on display this warm, sunny October day can be found in the brief appearance of Rob Maness, a 52-year-old retired Air Force officer, and a candidate for United States Senator. (“A Conservative. A Vet. One Of US,” his campaign posters proclaim.) If the polls are right, he’ll get a bit less than ten per cent of the vote on November 4th.

If Louisiana were like 47 other states, that would be very, very good news for Senator Mary Landrieu, who is carrying a 180 pound burden on her back in her bid for a fourth term in the form of a highly unpopular Democratic President. If current polling holds up, she’ll get 38 per cent of the vote on November 4th, puts her about three points ahead of her main rival, Rep. Bill Cassidy, with Maness taking most of the rest.

But in Louisiana, November 4 is not Election Day; it’s primary day. And not just any kind of primary: it’s a “jungle” primary, where all of the candidates, regardless of party, run on the same ballot. And--crucially--if no one gets 50 per cent of the vote, the top two candidates face off on December 6th.

Louisiana’s not the only state with a “jungle” primary; Washington State and California have them, but they hold their primaries months earlier, so that November 4 is in fact Election Day. Georgia also has a run-off if no candidate gets 50 per cent, though Democrats are increasingly hopeful that Michelle Nunn might reach that magic number. There’s virtually no chance that will happen in Louisiana. It’s why Maness is correct when he dismisses the “spoiler” charge, noting: “My presence in this race is keeping senator Landrieu from winning it outright.”

The impact of a runoff on the fortunes of Landrieu--and the United States Senate--becomes a Rubik’s Cube of permutations. For instance: suppose the Republicans wind up with a clear Senate majority on November 4th. That would seriously weaken one of Landrieu’s key arguments: that as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she’s in a key position to protect the state’s oil and gas industries. If by some miracle it’s the Democrats who wind up with clear Senate control, it makes that argument so much stronger.

But what if a Louisiana runoff will determine which party controls the Senate? Does the state’s anti-Obama sentiment, and its increasingly Republican tilt, trump the clout that a Democratic Senate would give Landrieu?

That’s an unanswerable question. But here’s one certainty: If there is a runoff, and you have cash to spare, rush out and buy every radio and TV station you can find. Because the flood of campaign dollars into the state will make Katrina look like a spring shower.