Testing the Tea: Maness campaign fully steeped in Senate race

Special to the Herald-Guide
July 11, 2014 at 9:22 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

By Jeremy Alford

While his campaign for the U.S. Senate has so far been defined by money and endorsements from national tea party groups, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness of Mandeville could soon have the backing of the Family Research Council’s Action PAC, or political action committee.

According to the Maness campaign, cash is likely attached, although how much is unknown. A spokesperson said a public announcement with more details can be expected in the coming weeks.

Based in D.C. and run by former state Rep. Tony Perkins, FRC is among the highest profile faith-based lobbies in the country. The endorsement could lead to an increase in donations from the religious right, not to mention extra foot soldiers.

If nothing else, it will prompt mainline Republicans to ask why FRC chose Maness over Congressman Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. Even though polling shows Cassidy with a stronger chance of toppling incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu, factions on the far right have been harping for months about Cassidy not being conservative enough.

It also will pile more grief atop party diehards who are already worried about Maness’ ability to soften Cassidy’s field position.

Maness already has collected more than $1.2 million in donations, due in large part to earlier endorsements from the Tea Party Leadership Fund and Tea Party Express. This month he launched a new set of statewide radio ads featuring former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

With one major U.S. Senate upset from tea party forces in Texas, a narrow defeat in Mississippi and Louisiana in the middle, the question now becomes whether Maness can create sparks in his own bid. With small but climbing poll numbers, he has gone from a political sideshow to a factor that can no longer be ignored.

Politicos, however, agree he cannot win without a political miracle or a serious blunder by Cassidy. But he can continue to inflict damage on the GOP frontrunner.

“It has been a huge pain to worry more about Maness than Mary lately,” said a source connected closely to the Cassidy campaign. “He’s turned into a nuisance candidate, like a fly you can’t swat.”

National trends not likely to be duplicated

"I knew I would probably get a lot of tea party support because of my constitutional positions, but I wasn’t expecting the backing of these national groups,” said Rob Maness, the grandson of a farmer and janitor and son of another Air Force man.

He has five children, three of which are in the armed forces and one, the youngest at age nine, with special needs. But Maness’ personal background has been overshadowed by his own tea party leanings. His new “Contract With Louisiana” focuses on “liberty, prosperity and certainty.” He wants to “clean up the D.C. swamp” and protect individual freedoms. He drives an F-150 and owns several different guns, which he can rattle off with ease. He recently stared down Donald Trump — in a private disagreement over whether he should drop out to help Congressman Bill Cassidy, as reported by LaPolitics earlier this month.

“My guys have seen the colonel come out,” he said in an interview Monday. “I can get kind of grisly.”

While all of this might fit the tea party archetype, Maness’ campaign is a far cry from the models that have been successful in other states. He’s not an elected official, he isn’t running in a closed primary and there are two very strong lead candidates in the race.

Granted, Maness has received donations from the Senate Conservatives Fund like tea partiers in other states. But critics wonder if the fund can continue to raise money after the recent loss in Mississippi by tea party favorite Chris McDaniel, the state senator who fell short by some 6,000 votes of taking out Sen. Thad Cochran.

Maness, political observers argue, is a product of the times, meaning any other candidate who would have framed himself early on as the tea party flag bearer could have landed the same support. Maybe even state Rep. Paul Hollis, a fellow Republican who was too late to the field.

“All Maness is doing is making it harder for Cassidy to win in the primary,” said a longtime consultant. “He can only get to where he needs to be by attacking Cassidy and that’s knocking votes off of Cassidy. But the rub is we don’t know where those votes are going.”

They could be going to the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mary Landrieu, who needs all the help she can get. In particular, pollsters are watching to see if Cassidy is losing support among Republican women due to Maness’ email bombs, which haven’t caught the attention of the mainstream media yet.

The attacks have not targeted GOP women in particular, but they represent a swing group of great interest to the number-crunchers.

“Landrieu only has about 3 percent support from Republican women and she needs a lot more. She’s used to running better than that,” said a pollster. “This could get a lot worse if Maness is able to pick up another million or so and go on TV. He’s the unknown factor in this race.”

On the ground, Maness has taken some hits. The rank-and-file tea party groups in Louisiana have so far stayed quiet and the St. Tammany Republican Parish Executive Committee, on which Maness has a seat, has voted to endorse Cassidy. St. Tammany is also home turf for Hollis.

As Maness continues to hack away at Cassidy’s potential votes — not enough to win, perhaps, but enough to get second looks — the congressman’s supporters are wondering how long it will take for Republican surrogates to fire back at him. For Cassidy, it’s an easy call. After all, a hard and fast rule of going negative dictates that you should never attack someone who’s behind you in the polls. Cassidy, though, is surely looking over his shoulder and wondering what the grisly colonel will do next.

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