May Is a Special Month for House Campaign Teams

by Stuart Rothenberg May 5, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

Normally, May is the month of college graduations, flowers and the Kentucky Derby. This year, you can add special elections to that list.

On Saturday, voters in the special election in Louisiana’s 6th Congressional district will pick either Woody Jenkins (R) or Don Cazayoux (D) to fill the Baton Rouge-area seat left vacant by the resignation of Rep. Richard Baker (R), who held it since 1986.

Ten days later, Travis Childers (D) will face off against Greg Davis (R) for now-Sen. Roger Wicker’s (R) former House seat. Mississippi’s 1st district includes the northernmost quarter of the state, is the most rural and most blue-collar of the state’s four districts, and was represented by Wicker since he cruised to an open-seat victory in 1994.

Jenkins is an underdog in his race, while Mississippi’s 1st is a tossup. But turnout always is a huge question mark in special elections, and both parties are acting as if the contests are up for grabs.

If the election in Louisiana is about Jenkins, he loses. His negatives remain high, even with some Republicans. So GOP campaign operatives are doing everything they can to drive up Cazayoux’s negatives and to nationalize the House contest into a purely partisan fight.

Initially, it was unclear whether conservative and Republican groups would invest money in this race. Jenkins is widely viewed as a seriously flawed candidate who refuses to raise campaign cash, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has well- documented money problems.

But the NRCC is spending more than $300,000 on an independent expenditure against Cazayoux, and two “outside” conservative groups, Freedom’s Watch and the Club for Growth, are also up on TV against the Democrat. Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby is also spending about $75,000 on IE television ads against Cazayoux.

If the Louisiana election is any indication, Freedom’s Watch could well be a huge player this election cycle, helping to rescue Republican House and Senate candidates from the party’s disastrous financial position.

The group, which had a staff shake up in March, is spending more than $500,000 on TV ads in Louisiana’s 6th. The Club for Growth’s TV buy is $100,000. Jenkins’ campaign, in comparison, has made only a token TV buy.

Democratic and Republican spending on the race (combining the candidates’ TV ads with that of the parties and outside groups) looks roughly comparable, though Republicans seemed to have an advantage during the final week –– at least until a late TV buy by the Service Employees International Union to help Cazayoux.

“If Woody wins,” says one knowledgeable Republican, “it won’t be through any fault of his own. He’ll have nothing to do with it. But, he’ll think that he won because he waved signs.”

Interestingly, Jon Lerner, a political consultant who works regularly with the Club for Growth, has raised questions about the content of the NRCC’s ads, which link Cazayoux to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Lerner, who used references to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Pelosi in his Louisiana ads, questions the use of Obama in the spot, since the district is about one-third black. “Using Hillary makes the same point without running the risk of inflaming a large group of voters [African Americans] who aren’t all that motivated to vote in the special election,” he said.

GOP consultant Curt Anderson of OnMessage Inc., which created two TV spots for the NRCC’s IE, counters that the chances of motivating unmotivated Democratic voters is small and that, in any case, using Pelosi and Obama in the NRCC’s ads is the best way to frame the special election as a choice between the two parties and their philosophies.

And, Anderson adds, the fact that Michael Jackson, the black legislator who lost to Cazayoux in the Democratic primary, has a TV ad noting that he is running in the fall, points out that Democrats are already divided.

In Mississippi’s 1st district, Republicans have not yet united behind the candidacy of Davis, who narrowly won a runoff against a Tupelo-based Republican.

Davis represents a community in the northwestern corner of the district (suburban Memphis), and he is likely to have problems in the eastern half of the district. In fact, some observers believe Childers should try to turn the special election into a race against Memphis.

So far, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee appears to be heavily outspending the NRCC and Davis’ campaign combined — the DCCC could spend $1 million in the race — though a major ad buy by Freedom’s Watch could have a significant effect on the outcome. The group has not yet announced any plans to run TV ads in the race.

As in Louisiana, Republicans are going to try to “nationalize” this election, hoping that voters will see the choice as far bigger than merely Davis and Childers, but, rather, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats.

There is, of course, considerable irony with the GOP strategy in Mississippi and Louisiana, since in most of the country Republicans are trying to “localize” elections to inoculate themselves against the strong anti-Bush, and often anti-Republican, environment.

But both the Louisiana and Mississippi districts are conservative and Republican, and while President Bush is not wildly popular in them, Obama’s, Clinton’s and Pelosi’s numbers are far worse, according to multiple sources.