St. Charles Herald-Guide

First challenger to Landrieu steps up

Special to the Herald-Guide - April 5, 2013

By John Maginnis

Now that the Republicans have a congressman to challenge Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2014, the question becomes: will they have two?

U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge gets into the Senate race on Wednesday, forsaking a safe House seat in order to take on the three-term Democrat. Cassidy has been considering running since last year, during which time U.S. Rep. John Fleming of Minden began looking at it too.

Since then, the GOP colleagues have been looking at each other as well, in a political game of dare. Now that Cassidy has made his move, the next belongs to Fleming, who says he is still weighing his options.

It is an article of faith among Republicans that Landrieu is vulnerable, given the expected lower African-American turnout in the mid-term election and a potentially hostile national political environment for the moderate Democrat. They also agree that one strong GOP candidate is better than two. But, without a party primary to decide, it has been up to the ambitions and egos of the two men, both medical doctors, to settle matters.

In 2008, the two were in their 50s when they went to Washington, after pursuing completely different non-traditional careers in medicine. Cassidy has been a teaching professor at LSU Hospitals, where primarily he has cared for indigent patients. Fleming defies the stereotype of doctors making lousy businessmen with his dozens of Subway restaurants and UPS stores in North Louisiana.

Given how money talks, Cassidy pressed hard to add $500,000 to his campaign war chest, now approaching $3 million, by last week’s end-of-quarter reporting deadline. Big Republican donors, in Washington and Louisiana, were watching closely to see how well he did, for they know Landrieu and the national Democrats won’t be short on cash.

Fleming is under less pressure to show big fundraising totals right now, partly because of his own deep pockets and partly because it won’t cost him as much to get the Republican right wing to know he’s one of them. Instead, he has concentrated on building up his ideological base among social conservatives. He recently filed his "Health Care Conscience Rights Act," which would allow businesses to opt out of parts of the Affordable Care Act for religious reasons, such as objecting to coverage for certain forms of contraception.

Cassidy has blasted the contraception mandate as well, siding with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Fleming has aggressively made a very public case for himself as the real-deal conservative. He paid for a recent poll that showed both him and Cassidy at around 15 percent, behind Landrieu at 47 percent. But the pollster stated that Fleming fared better among Republicans and "very conservative white voters."

Going further, when poll respondents were told that Fleming receives higher scores for his voting record from conservative groups than does Cassidy, Fleming’s margin widened. His consultant concluded that if both run against Landrieu, the more conservative Republican is better positioned to make the runoff.

Cassidy, of course, could pay for a poll that describes both candidates in such a way that would favor himself. A year and a half before the election, poll numbers mean little, but what’s telling is that Fleming got in Cassidy’s face, all but daring him to meet in a primary showdown.

If that was meant to intimidate Cassidy, it obviously didn’t work. Without making a show of it, Cassidy has been moving around the state to meet with local Republican activists who could form his grass-roots network. His early target area is the parishes on both sides of Lake Pontchartrain that form the 1st Congressional District. In 2008, Landrieu ran surprisingly well in this traditional GOP stronghold on her way to beating Treasurer John Kennedy. Cassidy is making the case that he is the guy who can stop Landrieu at the Orleans Parish line.

Fleming could more excite the party’s conservative wing, but Cassidy could be more able to win over the middle-of-the-road voter that decides elections. After three failed attempts to beat Landrieu and after very conservative candidates lost several winnable Senate elections last fall, Republicans are getting less choosy about policy purity.

Many in the party are hoping that Fleming gets the message to stand down and unify the party. Yet others fear it is not going to work out that way, again, and the two GOP congressmen could settle their game of dare by colliding in the primary. It’s worked for Landrieu before.