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In Special Elections, GOP Tests Anti-Obama Strategy

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By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 3, 2008

BATON ROUGE -- Don Cazayoux insists he pays so little attention to the presidential campaign that, even on the verge of capturing a seat in the House of Representatives, he was unaware that if he wins Saturday he will become a superdelegate, tasked with helping to decide the Democratic presidential nominee.

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Yet in the run-up to Saturday's special election, the state representative's image popped up time and again in local television ads, paired with that of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). One spot had side-by-side photos of Cazayoux and Obama with the words "big government scheme" describing the local candidate's stance on health care. Another showed Cazayoux with Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and charged that Cazayoux supports a "radical liberal agenda." Another spot mocked him as "Don Tax You."

Faced with the prospect of losing a seat that the GOP has held for the past 33 years and the further thinning of their ranks in Congress, Republican committees and their conservative allies have poured more than $1 million into an effort to turn the race for Louisiana's 6th Congressional District into a referendum on Obama, the Democratic front-runner for the White House.

And this Baton Rouge-based district's ad war, which is being fought largely on policy positions, is softball compared with the high and tight pitches Republicans are throwing in northern Mississippi. With a surprisingly competitive House special election there set for May 13, Republicans are running ads showing the Democratic candidate with Obama; his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.; and outtakes from Wright's controversial sermons.

Having shed their belief that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) would be the bigger drag on down-ticket Democrats in the fall, congressional Republicans are field-testing a potential general-election strategy that pins Democratic candidates to Obama. It comes just as Wright reclaimed the national spotlight this week with a series of controversial appearances, sparking new questions about how white working-class voters will respond to Obama's candidacy.

If their strategy succeeds here in the Deep South over the next 10 days, GOP strategists expect to take it nationwide. "We like the way that's unfolding," Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters this week, adding that he would like to see races become debates about broad, "national" issues this year.

One of the NRCC ads in the Baton Rouge market suggested that "a vote for Cazayoux is a vote for Obama." Another 30-second spot asked simply: "Is Obama right for Louisiana? . . . You decide."

Obama's backers on Capitol Hill are watching anxiously, hoping Democratic victories in Louisiana and Mississippi will blunt Clinton's argument to uncommitted superdelegates that she would be a stronger general-election candidate.

"It'll be very interesting to see how people react to these kind of subtle, or not so subtle, quasi-racial appeals," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an Obama supporter.

The anti-Obama ads have put their targets on the defensive. In Mississippi, Democratic candidate Travis Childers, a county court official, launched his own ads saying he had never accepted Obama's endorsement and had never met him.

And at a senior citizens center outside Baton Rouge on Thursday, Cazayoux (pronounced caz-you) was confronted mainly by questions about the "Tax You" ad. He offered a lengthy explanation about state budget crunches early in the decade that forced tax increases to maintain funding for Medicaid and education programs. Then he quickly moved on, working the room and shaking hands.

"I know presidential politics is on everybody's mind, but I have really focused on my campaign. I've got to get elected," Cazayoux said in an interview afterward.


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