Quin: Cassidy a formidable foe for Landrieu

After my first-ever sit-down interview last week with U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Mary Landrieu in the fall, two overriding impressions emerge. Both impressions will make it harder for Landrieu to defeat Cassidy’s challenge.

The first impression is that Cassidy speaks with a marked intensity — but it is an intensity of thought, meaning that he cogently and sharply makes his points, rather than the sort of intensity of emotion that leads to overheated rhetoric. He’s smart and he’s disciplined. Cassidy is thus unlikely to make campaign “gaffes” that Landrieu can exploit to her advantage.

Second, Cassidy completely takes off the table one hoary Democratic attack, namely that Republicans lack compassion. It’s tough to portray someone as uncompassionate when he is a doctor who has performed astonishing levels of pro bono medical work, including free post-hurricane care for Katrina refugees and serious medical mission work in Swaziland.

Indeed, he said he was in Swaziland when a colleague shared some issues of the flagship conservative publication National Review, which Cassidy said helped launch his conservative political interests. Cassidy clearly saw conservatism not in opposition to care for the least among us, but as providing the best conditions for such care.

“For 25 years, I’ve been working in the charity hospital system in Louisiana,” Cassidy said. “I’ve been working to serve those who didn’t have insurance, often didn’t have money and had bigger problems. Those folks are suffering now. They are suffering because of ‘Obamacare’ and because of this economy. They are suffering because of this president’s policies, which Senator Landrieu supported 97 percent of the time.”

Cassidy says those policies are particularly counterproductive for Louisianians: “Whether it’s Obamacare, which raises taxes, hurts employment and puts government more deeply in our personal lives, or it’s an economy which he clearly doesn’t understand [while he] continues to put a bull’s-eye on oil and gas — the one industry that is creating jobs for working folks — and the fact that Senator Landrieu supports him 97 percent of the time … it makes [Louisiana voters] think that their senator no longer represents them, meaning we, in Louisiana, but represents Barack Obama.”

Cassidy cited an article by Capitol Hill publication Roll Call for the 97 percent statistic.

Cassidy said that with both he and his wife (she’s a surgeon, he’s a gastroenterologist) having busy medical practices, he had time for politics only as a volunteer for some 15 years, beginning with phone banking for Republican Ben Bagert against former Klansman David Duke in 1990. Then, though, Katrina hit, and he led efforts to turn an abandoned K-Mart into a makeshift health clinic to care for evacuees.

“A lot of folks post-Katrina got involved,” he said. “They looked around and they saw that we had a state which was totally dysfunctional. … It was not just me, it was others: We don’t want a state like this, where folks can’t evacuate a city in the face of what was initially considered a Category 4 hurricane. So I was one of those who chose that moment to get involved.”

Cassidy ran in and won a late-2006 special election for state Senate from Baton Rouge. Two years later, he defeated incumbent Congressman Don Cazayoux to win a seat in the U.S. House. His five-year record there has been solidly conservative: 87 percent lifetime from the American Conservative Union, 100 percent most recently from National Right to Life. But he’s no partisan bomb-thrower, and boasts of working with Democrats to save Gulf Coast residents from an expensive change in the national flood insurance program.

“I am a conservative,” he concluded, sounding very much like the late “opportunity society” congressman Jack Kemp, “because I think conservative values provide the best hope for everybody regardless of who they are: their social strata, their background. … We as conservatives have distilled those values, so that if someone who is poor wishes to be wealthier, they are more likely to get there through our values than through the other side’s.”

Mary Landrieu can rely on years of goodwill built up among many Louisianans. But, especially in what looks like a Republican year, Cassidy comes across as a particularly strong adversary.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com, and he blogs at blogs.theadvocate.com/ quin-essential.