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.
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.
Informed that a victory Saturday would make him a superdelegate, Cazayoux would not say whether he would back Obama or Clinton.
Casting himself in the mold of conservative Democrats such as former senator John Breaux (La.), Cazayoux has worked to distance himself from the hot-button topics that have become handy wedge issues for Southern Republicans in recent decades, shifting the conversation to his family roots every chance he gets.
"My grandfather is 94 years old. I visit him on a weekly basis. And he's doing great," said Cazayoux, a boyish-looking 44, drawing applause from the crowd at the senior center.
His parents appeared in a commercial touting their son's opposition to abortion and support for gun owners' rights, positions that put him at odds with most members of the Democratic caucus.
"They're not running against me as a person; they're just saying I'm going to be at the extreme left on the issues, and that's just not correct," Cazayoux said. "People are looking for solutions -- I'm not sure if they're looking for Democrats or Republicans."
He even left open the possibility of voting for someone other than Pelosi, who has abysmal approval ratings here, for House speaker next January.
That Cazayoux faces this Obama predicament is an indication of the hard times that the Republican brand has fallen on since the party was swept from the House majority two years ago. President Bush won this district with 59 percent of the vote in 2004. Former congressman Richard H. Baker, a Republican who regularly won with at least 70 percent, ran without Democratic opposition in 2006.
With Baker retired to life as a hedge fund lobbyist, national Democrats have flooded the 6th District with more than $1 million, mostly to fund attack ads against Republican Woody Jenkins, a former state legislator who owns a chain of weekly newspapers around Baton Rouge.
Jenkins has been outraised four to one by Cazayoux in the final weeks of the race, but he has had television support from the NRCC and groups such as Freedom's Watch, a political nonprofit group run by former White House and GOP aides.
Jenkins has embraced the effort to nationalize the campaign, saying his No. 1 issue in stump speeches is trying to punch holes in the idea that a centrist Democrat would resist the initiatives of a President Obama and Speaker Pelosi.
"We connect the dots. This is a national election in the 6th District of Louisiana," he said after a crawfish-boil rally with popular Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).
There are indications that that message is breaking through. In a recent poll, Cazayoux's disapproval rating jumped to 28 percent among voters, a number GOP aides said was up from 4 percent after he secured the Democratic nomination a month ago.
After the crawfish boil, Jack Datz walked away with two "Jenkins for Congress" yard signs. An independent, Datz, 56, joined a union as a machinist early in his career, only to quit after right-to-work laws weakened labor's sway here. Having survived kidney failure as a child, an accidental poisoning, cancer and a stroke, Datz said health care is important to him. He also puts ethics reform -- an Obama hallmark -- among his top concerns.
But he's backing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Obama's preacher "said some radical things," Datz said. "He should have taken a stand. To keep black people from getting mad, he didn't. And that is not a leader."
Frances Heath, 76, who asked Cazayoux about the "Tax You" ad, said, "I don't think we are ready for a black president. I don't think we are."
Back in Washington, many Republicans privately discount Jenkins -- who has run and lost several big races in the past two decades -- as an imperfect vessel to test the anti-Obama line. The better indication of the tactic's effectiveness may come in Mississippi.
But should Jenkins pull off a win, it could dramatically change the conversation, both in the Democratic presidential contest and in the battle for Congress.
"It really is the beginning of [long-term] Democratic control of the House, or the beginning of the end," Jenkins said.