LAFAYETTE, La. — Louisiana’s cayenne-laced politics are seldom dull. But this fall, with an open Senate seat, three open House seats and a congressman’s last-minute party switch that sparked a lawsuit, they are spicier than usual.
Two of Louisiana’s seven congressmen, Democrat Chris John of Crowley, and Republican David Vitter of Metairie, are vying for the Senate seat of retiring John B. Breaux, a Democrat. Twelve-term juggernaut Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin, head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, is retiring because of intestinal cancer.
The least-suspenseful race is in Mr. Vitter’s 1st Congressional District, a Republican bastion in New Orleans’ affluent suburbs. Bobby Jindal, 33, a Rhodes scholar and administrative wunderkind who lost a close race for the governorship last fall, is considered a shoo-in. If elected, he would be the first congressman of Indian descent since 1963. His parents were born in Punjab.
Both national parties have targeted Mr. John’s 7th District as can-win, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is pouring resources into Mr. Tauzin’s 3rd District. The two districts encompass 20 of southern Louisiana’s Cajun parishes, from the West Bank of New Orleans to the Texas state line.
However, under Louisiana’s unique open primary, all candidates of both parties appear on the same ballot, which forced the national parties to anoint chosen candidates, causing hard feelings in both districts. Both are expected to go to a runoff on Dec. 4. If no candidate garners 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, the top two candidates are pitted against each other in a runoff contest.
Here in the 7th District, there are three Democrats and two Republicans on the ballot. The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee (RCCC) decided the stronger Republican was Charles Boustany Jr., 48, a heart surgeon forced into early retirement by arthritic hands.
Democrats, meanwhile, have two strong contenders: state Sen. Willie Landry Mount, 55, who was the first woman mayor of Lake Charles, and state Sen. Don Cravins, 56, a black maverick who endorsed former Republican Gov. Mike Foster for re-election in 1999.
Mrs. Mount, a conservative, pro-life, pro-gun Democrat, received the backing of the DCCC, but was unprepared for the attack ads it unleashed on Dr. Boustany that suggest he would jeopardize Social Security.
The RCCC has run ads accusing her of supporting tax increases as mayor and state senator. Both ad campaigns are distorted, and neither candidate approved them.
“We don’t need Washington in Louisiana politics,” Mrs. Mount said.
She called on both parties to suspend the ads, but they haven’t.
Party labels are blurry in this conservative state, which President Bush is expected to carry handily. But the Republican candidates support re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada, which Mr. Bush opposes, and they oppose a constitutional amendment banning homosexual “marriage,” which he supports.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have distanced themselves from Sen. John Kerry, while all the candidates oppose Mr. Bush’s Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is anathema to sugar farmers here. Another overriding issue here for both parties is coastal erosion.
A similar free-for-all is unfolding in the 3rd Congressional District, where three Democrats and three Republicans are on the ballot. The strongest candidates are Mr. Tauzin’s son, Billy Tauzin III, 30, a regional manager for BellSouth, and state Sen. Craig Romero, both Republicans; Charlie Melancon, former president of the American Sugar Cane League; state Rep. Damon Baldone; and Charmaine Degruise Caccioppi, senior staffer for former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, all Democrats.
The DCCC has endorsed Mr. Melancon, which Mrs. Caccioppi called “sickening” and “unfair.” The RCCC has not taken sides, probably because polls suggest Mr. Tauzin and Mr. Romero could face each other in an all-Republican runoff, but it has begun running attack ads against Mr. Melancon.
The elder Mr. Tauzin, however, donated his unused campaign funds to the state GOP, which then endorsed his son, leading to accusations by Mr. Romero of a payoff. He also began running radio and TV spots thanking constituents for their prayers during his chemotherapy, causing his son’s opponents to question the ads’ timing.
Meanwhile, in the sprawling 5th District in northeastern Louisiana, Rep. Rodney Alexander unleashed a firestorm when he switched from Democrat to Republican a half hour before the Aug. 6 filing deadline, depriving furious Democrats of time to field a serious candidate against him.
The state Democratic Party filed an unsuccessful lawsuit to extend the filing deadline or to remove him from the ballot.
Also upset was John “Jock” Scott, a former state legislator who had planned to be the sole Republican on the ballot. Mr. Alexander was elected in a 2002 runoff by only 972 votes and was seen as vulnerable. Polls suggest Mr. Alexander strengthened his chances by becoming a Republican.