The Republican bigwigs who converged at Huey’s Bar in Baton Rouge on Monday billed the lunchtime gathering as a unity rally. And indeed, Republican leaders are unified around the common cause of ending Democrat Mary Landrieu’s 18-year U.S. Senate tenure next month and completing a remarkable clean sweep of statewide offices.
They should enjoy it while it lasts.
The purported star of the event was U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, the odds-on favorite in the Dec. 6 runoff, whose message was the same as it’s ever been — that a vote for Landrieu might as well be a vote for President Barack Obama — with one new cautionary note about the risk of overconfidence.
Cassidy also was one of many speakers to riff on the watering hole’s name. Shrugging off the irony of an ascendant Republican Party meeting at a spot named for a legendary populist Democrat, he said the location was fitting because “Huey Long was the last person in Louisiana to beat an incumbent senator.”
An even better line might have played off the old joke about how the Louisiana GOP used to be so small that it could meet in a phone booth. Monday, the cozy stage was so crowded with prominent Republicans that Garret Graves — who is expected to take Cassidy’s place in Congress, assuming he can finish off another Democratic governor of yore — had to watch from the jam-packed floor, and plenty of voters hoping to hear Cassidy, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul spilled out onto Third Street.
Offstage, though, things aren’t quite so unified.
Take Vitter and Jindal. The two don’t find much common purpose these days, and even at this rare joint appearance, they managed to work their way to opposite ends of the platform. Jindal, who jumped on the Cassidy bandwagon late in the game, played the equal partner, but it was Vitter who was in the congressman’s corner from day one and helped steer its so-far successful course. Cassidy said as much, when he thanked Vitter for being “huge in our campaign.” If someone’s going to get credit for a win, we all know who it’s going to be.
The establishment Republicans had only warm words for tea party candidate and third-place primary finisher Rob Maness, who clearly will be an asset in the short term. While Maness couldn’t always keep up with his opponents on policy, he gives a heck of a speech, and after having spent months contending that Cassidy is insufficiently conservative and just as much a product of a broken system as Landrieu, he’s now fully on board.
But he’s also a reminder that there’s only so much that the elders can control. Vitter had tried to clear the field of Cassidy rivals, the better to focus on Landrieu. Others bowed out, but Maness insisted on staying in the race, a decision that forced the upcoming runoff in the first place. If things didn’t look so good for Cassidy now — and if he didn’t need those 202,000 anti-Landrieu voters who initially backed Maness to turn out for him — the party crasher might not have morphed so easily into an honored guest.
While other speakers stuck to common themes, it was Maness who raised an issue that’s genuinely dividing the party, the Common Core education standards that have become a lightning rod for many tea party supporters. When Maness lauded Cassidy for opposing the standards, Jindal, an original supporter who stuck his finger to the wind and repositioned himself as an adamant critic, applauded enthusiastically. Vitter, who has announced his support in the presumed hope of appealing to establishment conservatives who love the program when he runs for governor next year, mustered a pursed smile and waited for a generic line about parents versus bureaucrats to join in.
Meanwhile, yet another major Republican, Treasurer John Kennedy, continued to hammer Jindal from afar for the state’s budget woes. Just a couple of hours before the party gathered in triumph, Kennedy sent out a harsh email warning of a “historically large negative balance” in the general fund. He didn’t name names this time, but the critique was clearly aimed at the Jindal administration’s policies.
All this comes as the state’s politicians start to gear up for the 2015 election, in which the major obstacles to some Republicans’ success aren’t going to be Democrats, but other Republicans. For governor alone, Vitter already faces two big GOP names, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, and Kennedy has yet to announce his plans. Expect a similar dynamic up and down the ballot. And expect a whole lot more intra-party conflict, over both issues and primacy.
So yes, it’s easy to be unified now, when all the blood in the water is coming from Democrats. Just wait until next year.
Stephanie Grace’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.