What goes around comes around. The general election was just last month, and the six-month primary season that preceded it wrapped in September. But the final action of this year’s House elections more closely resembles the caustic primaries than the partisan sniping of the fall national election.
Republican Reps. Charles Boustany and Jeff Landry of Louisiana have a Dec. 8 runoff still before them; the crowded open primary election held last month -- while the rest of the country was finishing the election -- did not give either man an outright majority. Boustany and Landry have spent the extra month of their contest in Louisiana’s 3rd District revisiting the Republican primary season.
Republican member-on-member matchups have all followed a similar trajectory this year, with mixed results. One member has attacked the other on ideology, hitting the opponent for supporting big government, not being in touch with the GOP grassroots, and generally not being a good conservative. The other members have refused to cede ground on ideology and also made the argument that they are more effective legislators. In this contest, Landry is playing the former role and Boustany the latter, though differences in their voting records are minimal.
“This race is simply about the heart and soul of the Republican Party,” Landry said in an interview. “It’s very clear that Republicans took it on the chin on Election Day … and there’s been a lot of talk about why. In my opinion we have to start running for things, not against them, and stand up for what we believe even in the face of criticism from the left. That’s something my opponent, who votes like the other side of the aisle, differs on. He voted for the debt ceiling, for bailouts, for cash for clunkers. He voted himself a nice pay raise. Those things are counterintuitive to the principles of what conservatives are supposed to stand for.”
With this argument, Landry picks up a mantle carried earlier this year by GOP members like Reps. Sandy Adams of Florida, Don Manzullo of Illinois, and David Schweikert of Arizona, each of whom cast their primary opponents as insufficiently conservative. Adams memorably called veteran Rep. John Mica “the personification of all that went wrong with our Republican majority” in an April fundraising appeal.
But Mica refused to be pigeonholed as a moderate: His first TV ad labeled him a “conservative fighter” while ticking off votes against the stimulus, Obamacare, and raising the debt ceiling. At the same time, the Transportation Committee chair touted his ability to get things done in Congress, including bringing highway funds to the area.
This is the route that Boustany has taken, following a path trodden by Mica and Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Ben Quayle. The Boustany campaign has its own list of conservative causes he’s championed, like repealing Obamacare, and conservative heresies committed by Landry on taxes and natural resources. But Boustany is also focusing on his effectiveness in Congress.
“This campaign boils down to credibility and effective leadership. Congressman Boustany has a proven record of providing credible, conservative leadership that gets real results,” said John Porter, Boustany's campaign manager. (The Boustany campaign did not make the congressman available for an interview.)
In debates and other campaign appearances, Boustany has emphasized his relationships with House Speaker John Boehner and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan -- Boustany, a physician, says that Ryan has come to him for help with health care legislation. Like Mica, Kinzinger, and Quayle, Boustany argues that he can better affect change by working within the House Republican hierarchy instead of lobbing bombs from the outside.
Of course, there is a key difference between the Louisiana race and the rest of the GOP’s intra-party House squabbles this year. Democrats can vote in the December runoff, and Boustany has actively courted their votes, obtaining the endorsement of Lake Charles attorney Ron Richard, the Democratic candidate who finished third in the November election.
Given how strongly both candidates have emphasized their conservatism during the campaign, it’s unclear how many Democrats will turn out for what’s sure to be a low-turnout runoff. That could help Landry, who has catered to the same grassroots conservative base that helped him win a primary over former state House Speaker Hunt Downer in 2010. But Boustany led in the November vote, 45 percent to 30 percent, and brought more than three times as many constituents to the new district as did Landry.
Neither GOP campaign approach was wholly successful in the member-versus-member primaries this year, with Kinzinger, Mica, and Schweikert emerging victorious. Boustany’s territorial advantage and broader appeal have placed him in the driver’s seat heading into the last House election of 2012. Landry hopes a primary-like atmosphere and motivated supporters could lead to a surprise. “I can tell you this,” Landry said. “The people who are voting for us are passionate about the issues, passionate about what we stand for. If those people turn out, we will win. We’re just trying to find those people who voted for us and get them back out to the polls.”