- - Wednesday, October 31, 2012

LAFAYETTE, La. — Even in a state known for its colorful political contests, the battle between two incumbent Republicans in Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional District may go down as one of the nastiest ever.

When Louisiana lost one of its seven House seats after the 2010 census, the state Legislature forced Reps. Charles W. Boustany Jr., 56, a four-term member from Lafayette, and freshman Jeffrey M. Landry, 41, a tea-party favorite from New Iberia, into a game of musical seats.

For months, the two conservative incumbents have been savaging each other like scorpions in a bottle, blitzing the nine-parish, predominantly Cajun district in southwestern Louisiana with TV commercials, direct-mail fliers and robocalls that assail each other’s voting records and integrity.

Mr. Boustany, a retired heart surgeon, has accused Mr. Landry, a lawyer and businessman, of tax delinquency and of supporting a 23 percent national sales tax that would “strand families on a tax and fiscal cliff.” He also has said Mr. Landry opposed a lame-duck session after the Nov. 6 elections to deal with the looming sequestration cuts. His ads label Mr. Landry as a “self-serving, reckless politician.”

Mr. Landry, meanwhile, has attempted to brush Mr. Boustany with the ultimate political smear in the Bayou State: “liberal.” His ads claim Mr. Boustany supported key provisions of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Mr. Boustany denies. Mr. Landry’s TV commercials recite a litany of supposed “liberal” votes by Mr. Boustany, ending with a query borrowed from Bugs Bunny: “What’s up, Doc?”

Each has accused the other, with little or no convincing evidence, of another Louisiana political taboo: wanting to raise taxes. Each claims to be more pro-life, more pro-gun, more pro-drilling and more fiscally conscious than the other.

Down and dirty

Mr. Boustany has countered Mr. Landry’s accusations with commercials in which he proclaims himself “your honest, conservative voice for south Louisiana.”

His newest direct-mail fliers depict a lie detector with the word “LIAR” on the screen. “We don’t need a lie detector to tell us what Jeff Landry is,” it says. Another shows Mr. Landry repeatedly writing on a blackboard, “I will stop lying.”

In a new TV commercial, Mr. Landry appears with a picture of Mr. Boustany, rebuts his “fiscal cliff” charge and says, “This guy, he’ll say anything to get his job back. I want my country back.”

Asked during an appearance at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette what their relationship in the House was like before they were forced to run against each other, Mr. Landry said, “I don’t think Charles is a bad person. I just don’t agree with his policies.”

Mr. Boustany had a less-charitable assessment of his opponent after a fundraiser in Lafayette.

“I take the job seriously,” he said. “I show up for work. He doesn’t. He’s missed over 60 votes. He’s more serious about politics and games.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to bring the two men together for a debate, they squared off Wednesday at a Lafayette radio station for a sometimes acrimonious one-hour exchange during which they both largely rehashed the same accusations.

Mr. Boustany accused Mr. Landry of lying about his record and of “good old boy, wink-and-nod politics” while Mr. Landry insisted Mr. Boustany had told MSNBC that he “supported 80 percent of Obamacare.” Mr. Boustany called that charge a distortion of an interview before the bill was passed and countered that he had voted 30 times to repeal Obamacare.

He increased the number of votes he said Mr. Landry has missed to 107, “including the Keystone pipeline. Jobs!” Mr. Landry rebutted that that was a nonbinding resolution “that was nowhere close to the force of law.”

Complicating the race are three other candidates: Ron Richard, 46, a Democrat and Lake Charles lawyer who calls himself a “pro-union, Edwin Edwards populist, yellow-dog Democrat”; Bryan Barrilleaux, 55, another tea-party Republican and Lake Charles physician who has vowed not to raise or spend any money on the race, not even his own, in order to remain independent of special interests; and Libertarian Jim Stark, a delivery driver with a high school education and a Navy veteran of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars. The Lake Charles resident, unlike the other candidates, supports same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana and favors abolishing the Federal Reserve, calling the latter “Bernie Madoff with a printing press.”

Under Louisiana’s open-primary system, all candidates of all parties appear on one ballot. The question is whether the three minor candidates will poll enough to throw the race into a Dec. 1 runoff.Mr. Boustany has a dual mathematical advantage. Most of the population of the newly drawn district was in his former 7th District, to which he was elected in 2004. Moreover, he has outraised Mr. Landry, $3 million to $1.75 million, and outspent him $2 million to $1 million.

Courting the black vote

The wild card in the race? Black voters, who make up more than 20 percent of registered voters in the district but are less than enthusiastic about either of the incumbent Republicans.

Mr. Richard, who has spent just $30,000, said he hopes to tap into the black vote with commercials on black-owned radio stations. He noted that despite its conservatism, the district has a 50 percent to 27 percent Democrat-to-Republican party registration edge, and he said he will begin a blitz of 427 TV commercials.

“I’m the only candidate who had the respect to show up for the NAACP forum here in Lafayette,” he said in an interview at UL Lafayette. “I was the grand marshal of the Martin Luther King Day parade in southwestern Louisiana.”

Mr. Stark might draw the votes of hard-core supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, increasing the chances of a runoff. Mr. Paul ran fourth with 6 percent of the vote in the Louisiana Republican presidential primary in March, but his supporters steamrollered control of the state convention.

Pearson Cross, a political scientist with UL Lafayette, said he regards Mr. Boustany as the front-runner, but he gave Mr. Landry high marks for his campaigning ability after his UL Lafayette appearance.

“He has a real ability to connect with an audience and to make complicated government programs pretty simple and straightforward,” Mr. Cross said. “A person with no education or with lots of education can follow him as easily as day, and he brings issues down to a common-sense kind of propositions. He’s very good at doing that, and what we saw today was a primer on how to do that.”

However, Mr. Cross hinted that might not be enough.

Boustany’s biggest advantage is his time in office and conscientious attention to the needs of southwestern Louisiana,” he said. “He’s known as a hard worker and a bit of a policy wonk in the area of health care policy. Although not a natural politician or glad-hander, he has worked hard to be a good representative and to connect with leaders of government, business and industry across Louisiana. Representing southwestern Louisiana since 2004, he provides invaluable name recognition and connections with voters across the district that will be hard to beat, no matter how talented or persistent his competition.”

But Mr. Cross added, “The odds are 3 to 2 that there will be a runoff.”