Political Horizons: GOP candidates tack to the center

The election that sent political newcomer Vance McAllister to Congress last month seems to have reverberated more last week than the announcement that U.S. David Vitter, darling of the Louisiana GOP, would soon announce his 2015 gubernatorial intentions.

Republican candidates for the south Louisiana 6th Congressional District echoed the “conservative but practical” message that worked so well for McAllister, R-Swartz, in the race for the northeast Louisiana 5th Congressional District.

State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, had been anointed by party leaders, both in Baton Rouge and in Washington, for the 5th Congressional seat.

Riser loudly backed shutting down government in hopes of smothering the federal Affordable Care Act, which had been approved by Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and a national election. McAllister said he opposed the health care plan but would show the president respect and work with him.

McAllister picked up 36,061 votes during the month between primary and the all-GOP general election.

The Republican Party elite indicated it likely would push the Louisiana Legislature to bring back closed party primaries and sidestep a future “McAllister Mistake.”

“Some of the party leaders felt like Riser was a very strong leader and that the Democrats ended up deciding the race,” said Woody Jenkins, who chairs the East Baton Rouge Parish Republican Party.

Roger Villere Jr., who chairs the Republican Party of Louisiana, said closed primaries are more fair to voters in both parties. GOP officials are in early talks with specific legislators to draft and carry a bill to accomplish that goal, he said.

Kirby Goidel, director of the LSU Manship School’s Research Facility, says the Democratic Party is in such disarray, with so few viable candidates and no farm team, that its chief function these days is to serve as a pool of voters for a Republican candidate to exploit in a general election.

This supports a single-party primary strategy that would end up with Democrats having their own candidate in the runoff, rather than casting the deciding votes in an all-GOP general election. The candidates that would come out of a single-party primary would reflect the more extreme positions of either party, Goidel said.

State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, said that too often, candidates allow themselves to be defined by their ideological beliefs. “Those lines are more and more blurred now because that’s what the people want. I think they’re becoming sickened with pure party politics in Washington, and I think they’re looking for someone willing to work with everybody to be solutions-oriented,” said Chabert, who will announce his 6th District intentions after the holidays.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, who announced his candidacy last week, agreed. Louisiana wants its congressional representatives “to talk to one another and work toward solutions” instead of “throwing temper tantrums when they can’t get their way,” he said.

Claitor already is being attacked by the same bloggers who just a couple months flogged McAllister for taking positions that differ from the most conservative wing of the national Republican Party.

Tony Perkins, who as president of the Family Research Council, would be the biggest name in the race should he choose to run.

Perkins is not responding to interview requests. But his spokesman, Darin Miller, said Wednesday Perkins was still “considering” running and had recently met with clergy in Houma.

Jenkins says his former seatmate in the Louisiana House already has a pretty important job running a national organization that says it lobbies for government policies that support Christian family values. Perkins makes about $200,000 a year leading the group that raises about $13 million a year, according to the group’s federal Form 990.

He has said Islam is evil, Obama’s election would lead to America’s destruction, and advocates of equal rights for married gays are pawns of Satan.

Perkins also has an easy eloquence sharpened over the past decade in numerous interviews and debates. “He has been in the arena and in the heat battle,” Jenkins said.

Even Perkins is framing Republican elections with “us” against “them” rhetoric. For instance, during a recent interview on the America Family Association radio network, Perkins criticized Republicans who agreed to end the government shutdown, saying the leaders of the GOP “establishment” only want congressmen willing to conform.

Pearson Cross, head of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Department of Politics, Law and International Relations, doesn’t think Louisiana will move to closed primaries because that would be seen as denying what many Louisiana voters now take as basic right: the ability to vote across party lines.

Given that, Cross added, “The state has a strong conservative majority and that Democrats can, at best, play a spoiler game in state-wide elections.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com