President Bush's coattails will get a test on Dec. 4 when voters in two Louisiana congressional districts head to the polls, officially ending the long campaign season of 2004. National party leaders see the year's final two races as a chance for bragging rights-and, more importantly, as a barometer of the Democrats' future in the Southeast.
Louisiana's 7th Congressional District has never sent a Republican to Congress, so a GOP takeover there would make national headlines. The party's standard-bearer, Charles Boustany, is a wealthy heart surgeon who took 39 percent of the vote in a five-way primary on Nov. 2. But state Sen. Willie Mount kept the race close enough to force a head-to-head runoff. The Democratic candidate is touting her long government experience-and her traditional values-in attempting to win back Catholic voters who just weeks ago turned out overwhelmingly for President Bush.
Calling herself "an unparalleled champion of family values," she says on her website that "life begins at conception and . . . should be protected just as any other human life." She goes out of her way to distance herself from the national party, frequently refers to herself as "independent," and insists that "it's about people, not party."
That may not be enough, however, in a district where John Kerry proved wildly unpopular. If Ms. Mount goes down to defeat in a longtime Democratic stronghold, as some local political experts predict, Republicans will certainly blame the liberal reputation of her national party. But her real party problems may lie closer to home.
The Louisiana Democratic Party openly supported Ms. Mount in the primary, listing her name on a "Democratic Unity Ballot" that was mailed to some 100,000 voters throughout the district. Not appearing on that ballot was the name of Don Cravins, a black state senator whom some party leaders deemed too liberal to win in a runoff. Ms. Mount barely edged Mr. Cravins to make it into the runoff, but now the losing Democrat is withholding his support and threatening to sue his own party for an alleged violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Republicans face a similar problem in the neighboring 3rd Congressional District, where intra-party squabbling could cost the GOP a historic sweep on Dec. 4. It's a district the party hasn't had to worry about since Democratic Rep. Billy Tauzin Jr. switched parties to become a Republican in 1995.
But the battle to replace the retiring congressman turned ugly. With primary polls showing the top three contenders nearly tied, Republican Billy Tauzin III (the incumbent's son) and Democrat Charlie Melancon both turned their guns on the most likely spoiler, Republican state Sen. Craig Romero. In last-minute TV and radio ads, the two congressional hopefuls accused Mr. Romero of voting to repeal a ban on sodomy and of supporting gay marriage.
Mr. Romero said he first learned of the attack when Tauzin campaign volunteers handed him a flier as he emerged from Sunday-morning church services. The conservative Republican claimed certain procedural votes were being taken out of context, but with only days to go before the primary, the damage was done, and Mr. Melancon, the Democrat, edged Mr. Romero by 2,071 votes to earn a spot in the runoff.
Now Mr. Romero says he won't endorse either of his rivals. "It's unreligious what they did," Mr. Romero told The Hill, a congressional newspaper. "I'm not getting involved in this race." In a closely divided district, that could doom Mr. Tauzin's congressional hopes-especially with his Democratic challenger continuing to harp on "values."
"I am pro-life, pro-gun, and opposed to gay marriage," Mr. Melancon bragged in a recent press release, "and I will be proud to represent these shared values of Louisiana in Congress." He also pointed out that he has a long record of pro-family votes in the state Senate, while the younger Mr. Tauzin, a corporate lobbyist, has none.
If Mr. Melancon pulls off a win on Dec. 4, it could signal that so-called values voters are not a wholly owned subsidiary of the GOP. The question is, will anyone in the Democratic hierarchy get the message?