Washington — When asked why he robbed banks, the career criminal Willie Sutton famously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”
The analog for politicians is to go where the votes are. And in Louisiana, it’s clear the biggest pile of votes is on the right end of the political spectrum, in the province of the Republican Party.
This isn’t exactly breaking news: The state has voted Republican in the last four presidential elections, and no Democrat has won a statewide race since 2008.
The returns from this year’s elections for Congress suggest that the cap on Democratic votes isn’t much higher than the 40 percent or so that Democratic President Barack Obama received in 2008 and 2012, at least in sizable jurisdictions with diverse populations. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu took 44 percent of the Dec. 6 runoff vote in her failed effort for re-election. She lost to Republican Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge congressman forced into the runoff only because tea party Republican Rob Maness pulled in 14 percent of the primary vote.
That race and the two U.S. House elections that went to runoffs demonstrated that under the open primary system, a winning strategy for Republicans can include a second-place finish in the first round of voting, providing the Democrats field only one major contender.
In the Senate race, Cassidy came in a close second on Nov. 4 but consolidated Republican support to win easily on Dec. 6. And in both the 5th Congressional District, in northeast Louisiana, and the 6th, centered in Baton Rouge, the one significant Democratic candidate led the Nov. 4 round ahead of a gaggle of Republicans splitting their party’s vote — but well short of the majority needed for outright victory in the primary. And in both cases, the head-to-head, Democratic vs. Republican runoff produced a Republican landslide.
The bursting vault of Republican votes draws the political Willie Suttons in droves. It gets crowded over there on the right wing, with each politician maneuvering to scoop up the biggest share of the loot while fending off other Republican rivals.
There’s the risk of being outflanked on the right in what amounts to a Republican primary within the open primary. The margins are small, so the knives best be sharp: In the 5th District, eventual winner, Ralph Abraham, ran second in the primary with 23 percent of the vote — fewer than 3,000 votes ahead of Zach Dasher, a candidate spawned by the “Duck Dynasty” reality TV clan who makes Savonarola look like a secular humanist.
So the 14 percent of the vote drawn by Maness — a first-time candidate who only recently moved to Louisiana — attracted attention. So, too, did his formation last week of a political action committee of vaguely conservative intent. Maness’ announcement of his PAC was praised by Cassidy, whom Maness endorsed in the runoff after attacking him in the primary, and by Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who is running for governor next year.
Maness’ home, in Madisonville, is in the 1st Congressional District, represented by Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, who cruised to re-election with 78 percent of the vote in the primary. The recipient of a perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union for his voting record in the 2013 Congress, Scalise was elected by his fellow House Republicans this year as majority whip, the No. 3 job in the leadership hierarchy — in part because he promised to advance a conservative agenda.
But Scalise took fire from the right himself last week, with a political group called Senate Conservatives Action running radio ads in the New Orleans area attacking him for helping earn House approval this month of the $1.1 trillion package that funds most of the federal government thorough Sept. 30 and averts a shutdown.
In what amounts to apostasy in the view of the far right, the measure did nothing to de-fund the Affordable Care Act or to block Obama’s executive order cutting slack for certain undocumented immigrants — and it was supported by the hated Obama himself.
The group also is running ads in the districts represented by other members of the House Republican leadership.
But it so happens that it’s affiliated with the Senate Conservatives Fund, which was by far the largest outside spender on Maness’ Senate campaign, to the tune of nearly $500,000.
Follow Gregory Roberts of The Advocate Washington bureau on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC.