Stephanie Grace: Voters may not know Maness, but they will recognize his script

BY STEPHANIE GRACE

sgrace@theadvocate.com

Louisiana voters may not know Rob Maness’ name, but they might recognize the script the Republican U.S. Senate candidate is attempting to follow.

In what’s being widely billed as an epic partisan showdown between Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu and Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy for a seat that both sides consider key to controlling the Senate, Maness is, well, the other guy.

The retired Air Force colonel, who recently left a job at Entergy to campaign for next fall’s election full time, is a newcomer to Louisiana politics. The most familiar name associated with his campaign, he likes to joke, is that of his campaign manager, John Kerry. Not THAT John Kerry, obviously.

Compared with the race’s two big dogs, Maness’ fundraising has been paltry, to put it generously. The most recent disclosure filings list Landrieu’s cash-on-hand total at $4.8 million, Cassidy’s at $3.2 million, and Maness’ at $25,000.

What Maness lacks in just about all the trappings of a major campaign, he hopes to make up for by following what’s become a well-trod path from relative anonymity to head-spinning prominence.

Those who’ve charted this course include Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who won in 2010 by beating the heavily favored GOP Gov. Charlie Crist in the primary and then fending him off in the general after Crist became an independent. (Crist, who had committed the mortal GOP sin of supporting President Barack Obama’s stimulus, would eventually become a Democrat, and is scheduled to headline the Louisiana Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner this weekend.)

They include U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, of Utah, who won the same year by knocking out the incumbent and another strong opponent, both Republicans. They include Texas’ Ted Cruz, the right’s latest shooting star, who last fall beat the lieutenant governor for the GOP Senate nomination in a state where Democrats never had a chance.

They even include Ronald Reagan, in Maness’ telling — not so much the popular president he became, but the right-wing rebel who crashed George H.W. Bush’s party to seize the 1980 nomination in the first place.

Like his role models, Maness’ strategy is to run to Cassidy’s right on issues like Obamacare, which he pledges to not only oppose but defund, and on government-backed flood insurance, which he believes should be eventually phased out in favor of a private-sector solution -— never mind that the government runs the program precisely because the private sector wouldn’t take on the risk.

And he’s got a few allies, including the arch-conservative Restore America’s Voice PAC, which endorsed him this week, and blogger Erick Erickson, who is on a crusade against the party’s establishment, starting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Introducing Maness at his RedState national gathering in New Orleans earlier this month, Erickson likened the candidate to Rubio, Lee and Cruz. He didn’t mention Cassidy by name but faulted party elders for “picking people just like them.” Erickson said that Cassidy had asked to speak “and I said no,” and he’d sent in the registration fee and “I gave it back.”

Cassidy’s staff says the candidate was previously scheduled to speak at a meeting on dyslexia, a cause in which he and his wife have long been active.

Yet there are some huge differences between Maness’ circumstance and Reagan’s maverick rise, let alone the more recent tea party-fueled triumphs.

For one thing, the tea party movement hasn’t played out in Louisiana the way it has in many other states. Elsewhere, Tea Party candidates have challenged the establishment from the right. Here, the conservative establishment and the movement have largely stayed in lockstep.

Try as Erickson and Maness might to paint Cassidy as a Democrat in Republican clothing, he still has the backing of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who in 2010 proved adept at running against Obama, something Cassidy is clearly emulating. If anything, fielding attacks from the right could help Cassidy soften his image for swing voters.

There’s no guarantee that, even in a state as conservative as this, Maness’ issues are winners. Both Cassidy and Landrieu are not only fighting to preserve affordable government flood insurance for Louisiana but are jostling to take credit for it, which suggests that their position polls pretty well. And while Republicans in Washington are fighting over whether to defund Obama’s health care law, how many voters really care that Cassidy has voted repeatedly to overturn the law but has not signed on to the pledge to starve the program, while Maness (and Vitter) have?

Still, Maness clearly sees a potential path, as do at least a few like-minded players on the national scene. Cassidy and his allies — not to mention the state’s peculiar politics — have conspired to make it an awfully narrow one.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.