A convicted felon and notorious former governor. A well-financed former member of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. A millennial with a household name. A tea party darling who grabbed attention with climate change-denying ads. And a state senator who has suffered family tragedy in recent weeks.
The race for Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District seat isn’t lacking in colorful characters or options for voters.
Republican Congressman Bill Cassidy’s decision to challenge Democrat U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu this year has left the recently redrawn 6th District wide open.
With a crowded field vying for the seat, a Dec. 6 runoff appears inevitable.
“Certainly, no one is going to win it outright,” LSU political scientist Robbie Hogan said.
Despite the district’s Republican leanings, conventional wisdom is that former Gov. Edwin Edwards, who has been endorsed by the state Democratic Party, will sail to the runoff and face one of the many Republican candidates currently crowding the field there.
“It makes a lot of sense, given that its such a wide-open field,” Hogan said.
But less clear is which of the Republicans will bust through the pack to make the runoff and have a good shot in a particularly Republican-heavy district of heading to Congress.
There’s Paul Dietzel, at 28 years old a political newcomer who has developed a software company. His grandfather, and namesake, was a popular LSU football coach in the 1950s and ’60s. Dietzel, a lifelong Baton Rouge resident, graduated from LSU and earned graduate degrees at Pepperdine University in California.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, of Baton Rouge, has been a fixture at campaign events, even after a car crash recently claimed the life of his 80-year-old mother and seriously injured his 89-year-old father. Claitor is an attorney and former prosecutor.
Garret Graves has raised the most campaign cash in the race, which has given him an opportunity for more television and direct-mail ads. Graves is making his first run for political office, though he’s had several jobs in politics, including six years as the Jindal-appointed chairman of Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and several years in Washington working as a staffer for U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin and U.S. Sens. David Vitter and John Breaux.
State Rep. Lenar Whitney, R-Houma, has won the endorsement of the Tea Party of Louisiana, as well as of Tony Perkins. She has drawn national attention with ads calling climate change a “hoax.”
“You have a large number of people running, so voters are going to have a lot of options but maybe not as much information,” Hogan said.
Also appearing on the ballot are Republicans Robert Lamar “Captain Bob” Bell, of Baton Rouge; Craig McCulloch, of Ethel; and Trey Thomas, of Baton Rouge. Two Democrats, Richard Lieberman, of LaPlace, and Peter Williams, of Lettsworth, are running, in addition to Edwards. And one Libertarian, Rufus Holt Craig Jr., of Baton Rouge, also is seeking the seat.
Republican Cassie Felder dropped out of the race, endorsing Claitor and criticizing Graves in the process, and Norm Clark, of Denham Springs, also a Republican, says he’s no longer seeking election, though he did not file the official paperwork to withdraw from the race. He also endorsed Claitor.
But voters will still see both Clark and Felder’s names on the ballot because of the printing schedule.
The 6th District — as it was redrawn in 2011 — is mostly centered in the Capital Region, but it claws down into Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes and arches up into Pointe Coupee and back to the Florida Parishes.
When Louisiana’s districts were redrawn and the state lost a U.S. House seat because of stagnant population trends, much of Baton Rouge’s black population was carved out of the 6th and put into the 2nd District, which stretches down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
Without a strong voting block, it’s unlikely a Democrat can successfully win the 6th District seat.
That hasn’t stopped Edwards, the colorful former governor who served nearly a decade in prison on racketeering and fraud charges. At 87 years old, Edwards’ attempt to jump back into politics after a failed reality show turn has drawn national attention, with stories from New York Magazine, NPR and CNN, among others.
In the run-up to Election Day, he’s been appearing at rallies across the district, and he routinely draws crowds of fans.
Other candidates said they planned to spend the final stretch knocking on doors and appearing at football games and festivals to drum up one last bit of support in what’s expected to be a tight race.
“We’re in the final stretch,” Dietzel said.
Claitor supporters even handed out push cards to trick-or-treaters on Halloween.
“We’re running downhill,” he said. “We’re having fun with it.”
Much of the attention this election cycle has focused on Cassidy’s bid against Landrieu for the Senate seat, bombarding voters with negative campaign ads from all sides.
But the 6th District hasn’t been immune to infighting and direct attacks.
Felder, before dropping out of the race, had anti-Edwards yard signs and she repeatedly spoke out against his campaign. Felder also filed a lawsuit against a political consultant who quit her campaign to work to elect Graves, and sought to question the candidate under oath.
Graves’ campaign recently sent anti-Dietzel direct-mail pieces to some voters.
Claitor circulated his own anti-Graves ad.
Someone created, then quickly deleted, an innuendo-laden website that targeted Dietzel, but it’s unclear who was behind it.
Dietzel dismissed the ads targeting him as “disappointing” and “morally unacceptable.”
“As a Christian and conservative, I have not spread lies or made attacks against my opponents and do not plan to start now. The people of our district deserve the truth, not desperate attempts to defame a candidate’s character and business,” he said.
Claitor defended his targeting of Graves, another apparent front-runner.
His ad highlights the fact that Graves doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, as well as his history of working in politics — including the line that he was appointed by “Barack H. Obama.”
“People have to be informed,” Claitor said. “It doesn’t seem like the newspaper ever really drew that distinction.”
Hogan said the race is rare in that, despite being an open congressional seat drawn so that it’s virtually guaranteed to go to the GOP, the race drew such a large slate of candidates but really only one household name.
“It’s amazing you only have two state legislators, for example,” Hogan said. “It is a peculiar race. You have a lot of people who are not well-known, who are not raising a lot of money.”
He said it will all come down to who has been able to hone in on a strong enough support base that will tip them over the edge on Tuesday.
“Louisiana voters love options,” he said. “But that also means it can be difficult for the will of a large group of people to bust through.”