Washington Watch: Some lessons from Tuesday’s primaries

The VA medical care scandal blew up as the biggest story in Washington this past week, but the real action took place outside the Beltway — “real” in the sense of real voters casting real votes, in primaries Tuesday in six states scattered across the country. And although Louisiana won’t even hold its own unique version of a primary until November, the leading candidates in the U.S. Senate election on that ballot can each find something to like in Tuesday’s results.

The big takeaway from Tuesday, as UL-Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley put it, is that “the tea party is a movement that has come and gone.” That’s good news for U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge, who is emerging as the leading Republican challenger to the re-election of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Cassidy is considered a relatively moderate conservative in the Republican ranks, and he is facing a challenge from his right in the candidacies of Rob Maness, of Madisonville, who recently left a high-paying job at Entergy after a 32-year Air Force career, and of state Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington. Cassidy has raised much more money than Maness or Hollis and is the early favorite to top the Republican vote-getters in any event, but Tuesday’s results can only make him feel more secure.

The main theater for the establishment-tea party showdown Tuesday was Kentucky, where five-term incumbent Mitch McConnell, who as U.S. Senate minority leader is the epitome of the Republican establishment, easily defeated a farther-right challenger. In Georgia, two relative moderates led a crowded Republican field in U.S. Senate voting and will match up head-to-head in a July 22 runoff for the party’s general-election nomination. And in Oregon, a pro-abortion rights Republican — hey, it’s Oregon — won the Senate primary over a more conservative state legislator.

“Republicans are putting their eggs in electable baskets,” UL-Lafayette political scientist Pearson Cross said. “I get the feeling that this is an election that is less about making statements and exploiting controversy than it is about trying to seize control of government. Particularly on the Republican side, they would very much like to have the Senate.

“I think that is guiding more people this time around,” Cross said, “so candidates like Rob Maness and Paul Hollis are getting less traction than they might otherwise.”

A net gain of six seats this year would give the Republicans a Senate majority, and Landrieu — a Democrat in a deep red state — is squarely in their crosshairs. But she can take encouragement from Tuesday’s results, too.

In the Tuesday primaries, 45 incumbent U.S. House or Senate candidates faced primary challenges, and all 45 won. That brings the incumbent score to 139-of-139 so far this election cycle.

Primaries are not general elections, and those numbers do not mean that Landrieu, who was first elected to the Senate 18 years ago, can take the rest of the year off to plan for her fourth term.

But they certainly do not support a widespread “throw the bums out” attitude among the electorate, despite the abysmally low approval ratings for Congress in opinion polls.

And Landrieu is no ordinary incumbent: By virtue of her seniority, she recently took over as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with oversight of all oil and gas legislation that moves through the Senate, a plum position for a senator from an oil state. Suffice it to say that attracting campaign contributions and support from the oil industry, which she has long championed, should not be a major challenge for her.

The wild card for all the Louisiana candidates is time — as in, lots of it.

Other states have already held their primaries or will do so by mid-September, with the general election on Nov. 4. But under Louisiana’s distinctive system, the Nov. 4 election will effectively function as the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate: Unless one candidate wins more than half the vote on that day, the top two finishers — likely Landrieu and the No. 1 vote-getter among the Republicans — will square off Dec. 6.

So Cassidy cannot rest easy, Southern University political scientist Albert Samuels said, and the candidates on his right can take some heart from the calendar.

“They’re going to have some money and some time to make their case,” Samuels said, “and the electorate is not engaged yet.”

Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@ theadvocate.com.