Melancon Takes On a Second Opponent: BP

by Nathan L. Gonzales June 17, 2010 · 1:44 PM EDT

Rep. Charlie Melancon hasn’t made much headway in his contest against Sen. David Vitter (R) over the past seven months, but now the Democrat has a new enemy in the Louisiana Senate race: BP.

With oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak threatening the shores and marshes of his 3rd Congressional district, Melancon has dramatically increased his profile. He’s been making the rounds on the cable news talk shows and received plenty of national attention for his post-spill efforts.

But Melancon must be careful not to look too political in a time of crisis, and it’s unclear whether he has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the Senate race. Early indications are that he still has a lot of work to do.

A new Public Policy Polling (D) survey released exclusively to Roll Call showed Melancon trailing Vitter by 9 points, 46 percent to 37 percent. Vitter led by a dozen points in July 2009, the last time PPP surveyed the contest.

Democrats will cheer the results showing the incumbent under 50 percent and with a 45 percent job approval rating (compared with 43 percent disapproval). But Melancon’s numbers weren’t much better. The Democrat’s personal rating was 29 percent favorable and 34 percent unfavorable.

The automated survey of 492 Louisiana voters was conducted June 12-13. It had a 4.5-point margin of error.

“The oil spill has presented an opportunity that never would have come up,” according to one Democratic operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Before the leak, Melancon’s campaign was a collection of attacks on Vitter (largely harping on the Senator’s connection to the “D.C. Madam” prostitution ring, including alleged incidents that happened almost a decade ago but surfaced about three years ago), while touting Melancon’s record on local issues (including cracking down on Chinese drywall) and highlighting tours around the state by his wife, Peachy.

Now Melancon is on a crusade against BP.

The Congressman has created online petitions calling for the firing of BP CEO Tony Hayward and railing against any effort to cap the financial liability of the company. He’s also asked people to submit their own cleanup ideas through his campaign website.

Online petitions have little practical effect but are used to generate media attention and, more importantly, capture people’s e-mail addresses and zip codes so that the campaign can solicit them later for a contribution or present them with a volunteer opportunity.

“The only reason Charlie got into public service was to help people,” said Bradley Beychok, Melancon’s campaign manager. “That’s why he ran for Congress, and that’s why he will be elected to the U.S. Senate. Politics is the last thing on his mind.”

But Melancon’s campaign has been relentless. One of the Congressman’s challenges is to distinguish what he is doing to help the recovery effort from what Vitter is doing in order to fundamentally alter the trajectory of the race. Democrats believe Vitter’s initial idea to cap BP’s liability gave them an opportunity to make that distinction. Melancon believes BP should be fully responsible and is calling the Senator’s idea a “taxpayer bailout” for the oil company.

On Friday, the Democrat’s campaign released a “Melancon Memeaux” titled “Putting People Before Politics.” This is after a conference call with reporters that attacked Vitter for politicizing the oil leak crisis.

“He’s not necessarily setting himself apart, just more theatrics,” according to one GOP strategist, taking a jab at Melancon, who got choked up during a Congressional subcommittee hearing — a moment that got some national attention. “He’ll need to do all that and more to make up lost ground.”

Before the crisis, Melancon consistently trailed Vitter by at least 10 points in hypothetical general election matchups.

An April 19-23 Southern Media & Opinion Research survey for businessman Lane Grigsby showed Vitter with a lead of 49 percent to 31 percent over Melancon. The survey had a 4-point error margin. Rasmussen Reports had the incumbent winning by 16 points in early April, with a 4.5-point error margin, and is polling the race again this month.

Melancon’s own poll (conducted in late February by Anzalone Liszt Research with a 3.5-point error margin) showed him down by 10 points, but Democrats were encouraged that Vitter was under 50 percent even though the incumbent led 48 percent to 38 percent.

There is no doubt that people are upset about the spill — a “deep-seated disgust” according to one GOP consultant — but there isn’t any evidence that voters disproportionately blame Vitter.

Aside from BP, Republicans believe President Barack Obama is on the hook for significant blame. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has been a vocal critic of the federal response and is given high marks for his performance since the leak began.

Melancon has tried to distance himself from the president, and Vitter’s attacks, by opposing Obama’s six-month moratorium on offshore drilling. Louisiana politicians are in agreement that the oil industry is too critical to the local economy to stop drilling.

While everyone is responding in their own way, Melancon is painting himself as the most effective — a campaign theme that the Democrat will use throughout the race. For now, he’s riding the wave of earned media because the paid advertising phase of the campaign is still weeks, if not months, away.

No one is certain where the oil leak will rank in the minds of Louisiana voters by the time Labor Day rolls around, or whether the issue is the game-changer that Melancon needed. The Democrat has been looking for ways to cut through clutter of other Senate races across the country. Earlier this year, veteran Democratic strategist and pundit James Carville, a proud Cajun, was making media calls talking about Melancon’s prospects.

Republican strategists are not oblivious to Vitter’s weaknesses and understand that Melancon, a former sugar industry lobbyist, is probably Democrats’ best possible candidate. But they also believe that the developing anti-Democratic wave will be Vitter’s saving grace.