|Race to unseat U.S. Rep. William Jefferson suprisingly low-key|
by Michelle Krupa and Frank Donze, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday October 01, 2008, 9:48 PM
Bare-knuckle attacks targeting incumbent Rep. William Jefferson, who is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges, might have seemed inevitable leading up to Saturday's 2nd Congressional District primary. But in a surprisingly low-key campaign, they never materialized.
Hurricane Gustav, which postponed the election, further muted the race by distracting voters and forcing Jefferson and six challengers to extend their campaigns by four weeks.
And so with time and money running short in the last two days of campaigning, getting sympathetic voters to the polls has become the No. 1 priority for the field of Democrats vying for spots in what appears to be an inevitable Nov. 4 party runoff.
Vying to unseat Jefferson, a nine-term incumbent, are New Orleans City Councilman James Carter, former New Orleans City Councilman Troy Carter, Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee, former TV news anchor Helena Moreno, state Rep. Cedric Richmond and Kenya Smith, a former top aide to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
Under new state rules, federal primaries are divided by party. Registered Democrats and registered independents can vote in the Democratic primary, while only registered Republicans can vote in the GOP primary.
There is no Republican primary because only one GOP candidate qualified. The Democratic runoff will be featured on the same ballot as next month's presidential election, with the general election to follow on Dec. 6. The district covers most of New Orleans, most of Jefferson Parish's West Bank and parts of south Kenner.
Uncertainty stands out
Independent polls conducted in late August and mid-September highlight the difficulty in handicapping Saturday's race, namely because scores of voters remain undecided or won't disclose their preference.
In two surveys, Jefferson and Moreno led the pack, racking up slightly less than 20 percent apiece. Most of the rest of the field fell in close behind them, while Smith earned 2 percent or less in both polls. Each survey canvassed 400 registered voters.
But in the earlier poll, conducted by Multi-Quest International, 38 percent of the respondents were undecided or would not respond.
Three weeks later -- after Gustav upended the campaign -- pollster Verne Kennedy tallied 23 percent of respondents who were undecided and 11 percent who refused to respond.
The September poll also found that uncertainty crossed racial lines: 21 percent of black voters and 28 percent of white voters were undecided or wouldn't say.
Though many undecided voters might have settled on a candidate since the polls were conducted -- no new independent polls have been made public -- political observers say the race's wide-open nature just a few weeks before election day signals that the contest remains up for grabs.
Spending is crimped
Business and political leaders from across the region have made their positions clear by ponying up more than $1.5 million in contributions to Jefferson's six opponents. But the bulk of that cash was spent in the weeks before the originally scheduled Sept. 6 primary.
Since then, money has been hard to come by. Last month, the field of challengers raised just $162,300 combined, state campaign finance reports show. With the exception of Troy Carter, who had enough money to go back on television in mid-September, the dearth of cash forced challengers to wait until this week to revive their TV and radio advertising efforts.
Jefferson, for his part, has raked in just less than $200,000 since he won re-election in 2006, including about $17,000 in September. More than half of the overall total came from his relatives, congressional colleagues and political committees, most of them tied to labor unions.
But unlike his challengers, the incumbent spent very little of his war chest in August, allowing him to launch two TV commercials last week, though their production quality was bargain-basement.
Keys to victory
Tight poll numbers and shrinking bank accounts mean getting supporters to the booth will be critical Saturday, pollster and Xavier University political scientist Silas Lee said.
"It comes down to having a ground game: identifying your voters and making sure they get out to the poll, " Lee said. "Technically, someone could make the runoff with 20 percent or less."
For the six challengers, the strategy also will have to include expanding their previous support bases, although the task is formidable, Lee said.
Because many sections of Orleans Parish remain a patchwork of rebuilt houses and blight, traditional efforts to knock on every door in a given neighborhood or dispatch electronic phone calls to the homes of chronic voters do not provide the same return as in the past.
"A lot of areas where you could do canvassing (before Katrina), they're still in recovery mode, " Lee said.
Though observers say a spate of other competitive races for Orleans Parish district attorney, several judgeships and the city's School Board should attract voters, the congressional contest has produced few sparks.
Playing it cool
Unlike in 2006, when Jefferson appeared at several debates and threw rhetorical punches, the incumbent mostly has kept a low profile this election season.
Besides appearing at a sparsely attended forum in August hosted by the community group ACORN in Mid-City, the congressman has barely surfaced on the campaign trail. Last week, he bowed out of the only televised debate of the primary campaign, sending word at the last minute that he had to attend a vote on Capitol Hill.
Even in his absence, though, his challengers mostly have avoided blasting Jefferson -- or each other. The most notable squabble of the otherwise placid campaign arose only last week and featured just two candidates: Moreno and Richmond.
In an apparent effort to elbow each other out of runoff contention, Moreno and Richmond traded shots centered on matters of "honesty and integrity" -- although without exploring the congressman's legal struggles.
Specific mention of the 16-count criminal indictment of Jefferson, meanwhile, has been rare. Lee, the Xavier pollster, chalked up the silence to tactics.
"Voters know the situation of the congressman, " he said. "They would probably see it as (the challengers) trying to exploit an unfortunate circumstance."
Political strategist Cheron Brylski, who is managing Troy Carter's campaign, agreed. "I think Bill Jefferson is bruised enough on his own, " she said.
But strategist Bill Rouselle called the muzzle on talk of Jefferson's upcoming trial strange, particularly in light of verbal assaults flying around in races for U.S. Senate, Orleans Parish district attorney and in the 1st Congressional District.
"It's no secret that his legal issues have hampered (Jefferson's) abilities as a congressman to be a part of the decision-making in Washington. But nobody has really brought that out, " Rouselle said. Jefferson, meanwhile, has sent out a steady stream of announcements from his congressional office touting his continued ability to serve his constituents, even though Democratic leaders have stripped him of his committee assignments because of the criminal allegations.
Rouselle warned that Jefferson's self-assurance, coupled with his opponents' decision to avoid attacking him, might doom his challengers.
"I've got to believe that Jefferson still has a pretty strong, loyal base out there, " he said. "The fact that they haven't really gone after him should make him feel pretty good."
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Michelle Krupa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3312.Frank Donze can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3328.