Cassidy portrays La. senate race as pivotal for country

In the first town hall meeting of his U.S. Senate campaign, U.S. Rep Bill Cassidy called on Jefferson Parish conservatives to back his attempt to unseat Sen. Mary Landrieu in a race he said could be pivotal in determining the country’s future.

Casting the 2014 election of the seat as a determining factor in which party will control Congress, the Baton Rouge Republican told a packed conference room at the Clearview Mall on Monday that the election will have ramifications far beyond a single vote in the Senate.

“It’s quite likely that whichever party wins Louisiana will be the party that elects the next majority leader Barack Obama will have to work with,” Cassidy said.

Republicans will need to swing six seats to take over the Senate in 2014. With the GOP unlikely to lose its House majority, that would put Republicans in charge of both legislative chambers.

Landrieu, D-La., has been regarded as a potentially vulnerable incumbent, with many analysts rating the race a toss-up. The winner of the race could determine the balance of power in the Senate, Cassidy said.

“A hundred years from now, when they look back at this election and say it’s a crucial point in our nation’s history, they won’t say it’s about personalities,” Cassidy said. “It’s about issues.”

A potential wildcard in the race is Robert Maness, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel from Madisonville. Though he lags significantly in fundraising, Maness, a Republican, has gained some traction with tea party supporters in the state.

The desire to tap into the spirit of the tea party was apparent throughout the meeting and even its format harkened back to the town halls that sprang up when the group first rose to prominence during the debates over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Throughout the meeting, Cassidy sought to tap into concerns of conservatives and tea party organizations as he read questions audience members submitted in writing.

Asked repeatedly about Obamacare, the congressman said he would vote to defund the program but not if it meant blocking spending on other issues, such as military spending or Social Security benefits.

Arguing in favor of health savings accounts and more transparent billing processes in health care Cassidy, a gastroenterologist, said Obamacare took power away from individuals and put it in the hands of government officials. That reduces the incentive for health care providers to cater to their patients’ needs over those of the bureaucracy, he said.

“If the politician has the power, if the bureaucrat has the power, the system lines up to serve him,” Cassidy said. “I want you to have the power, not a politician or a bureaucrat.”

Common Core, a set of educational standards developed by a coalition of states, should be left up to state governments, Cassidy said. However, he said he opposes any effort to make the program a federally mandated curriculum.

Cassidy also criticized the National Security Agency for using electronic surveillance in a way he said overstepped the agency’s authority under federal law. He similarly criticized the IRS for scrutinizing filings by tea party groups, suggesting such efforts could serve to repress political opposition.

Cassidy told the group that Jefferson Parish, along with St. Tammany Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish and the “bayou region,” would be key battlegrounds in the Senate campaign and that he’d be a frequent visitor to the area as the campaign progressed.

On a priority issue for the Louisiana congressional delegation, an overhaul of FEMA’s flood insurance program that officials warn could cause catastrophic premium increases for homeowners, Cassidy said the federal government needs to provide support for residents.

The federal government contributed to flooding issues by building levees on the Mississippi River nearly a century ago, stopping wetland creation that would lower flood risk, Cassidy said, and is responsible for the flood protection system that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

The federal government should provide a “backstop” so Louisiana residents can get flood insurance because of those issues, Cassidy said, and because the state plays such a key role in fuel production.

“People can say there’s no need to live in southeast Louisiana, it’s just as easy to say there’s no need for fuel for the rest of the country,” Cassidy said.