Stephanie Grace: Caldwell gets a challenge from the right

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s appearance at U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s annual Washington Mardi Gras party late last month caused a bit of a stir, and not just because Caldwell treated the crowd to a mean Elvis impersonation. There also was the underlying fact that the Republican AG was seen fraternizing with the state’s leading Democrat.

Never mind that Caldwell, a former Democrat himself who switched sides before his last reelection, reprises the act pretty much every year. And never mind that Republican U.S. Sen. and now gubernatorial candidate David Vitter and his wife, Wendy, once not only visited the party but joined Landrieu in a rousing rendition of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.”

That, of course, was in the traditional period for fence-mending, following Vitter’s initial election to the Senate following a campaign in which Landrieu not only backed Democrat Chris John, but enthusiastically danced with the life-sized Vitter puppet that John’s campaign used to assert that he’d be beholden to then-President George W. Bush. In fact, Vitter’s initial request that day was “I’m Your Puppet,” which, unfortunately, wasn’t on the play list.

This time, Caldwell’s performance came before, not after, his own election — a time when fences get smashed in the first place. So rather than sharing a good, healing laugh, “conservative activists” were trying to make hay of Caldwell’s visit to the Landrieu hospitality suite, according to LaPolitics reporters John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford. Several people there speculated aloud that one of the people filming the performance was a tracker for former U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry’s impending campaign.

Sure enough, Landry, a tea party favorite who developed a close working relationship with Vitter during his brief congressional tenure, announced that he’d challenge Caldwell next fall. And Vitter immediately weighed in on Twitter, calling Landry “a strong, solid conservative.”

“As a veteran, law enforcement officer, attorney and lawmaker, he would be a very qualified AG,” Vitter added.

One takeaway from the compliment, which Landry promptly returned, was that Vitter’s looking to assemble a ticket. Landry’s an obvious pick, given their relationship and their shared interest in keeping the courts friendly to business interests. The next race to watch is lieutenant governor; another friendly face, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, is running to replace Jay Dardenne, probably Vitter’s lead rival for the top job, although the race could attract a number of other prominent Republicans.

Another possible hint of things to come is the fact that two major Republicans are vying for the same job in the first place.

As if to confirm what everyone sees coming, Landry, who will surely portray himself as the purist in the field, went straight for Caldwell’s bona fides.

“He’s definitely not pro-business and definitely not conservative,” Landry said.

Caldwell has and will continue to try to shore up his right flank, not just on business but on social issues. Just recently, he hired high-powered lawyer Kyle Duncan from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., to fight challenges to the state’s constitutional amendment prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriages. Duncan was Caldwell’s point person several years ago in the fight to prevent the state from being forced to issue birth certificates listing both parents if they weren’t legally married under Louisiana law.

This sets up what’s becoming a typical Louisiana dynamic: two big-name Republicans duking it out for primacy and — if the Democrats don’t wind up fielding a plausible candidate — the possibility that more liberal voters provide the margin for the less conservative option.

Both Vitter and Landry know something about this. Vitter backed two candidates for statewide office last time around, including Nungesser against Dardenne, and his candidate lost in each case. Landry’s congressional career ended when redistricting forced him into the same district as more moderate colleague Charles Boustany, who beat him handily.

Caldwell once thought his Democratic roots could be his downfall, and those backing Landry seem to agree. Depending on how his former party plays this, they could also end up being his salvation.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.