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Democrats Flaunt Big Financial Advantage in Key La. House Race

(With Capitol Briefing author Ben Pershing on his honeymoon, today's guest post is from this blog's founder, Paul Kane of the Washington Post, reporting from Louisiana in advance of Saturday's special election for the seat of retired Republican representative Richard Baker.)

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Watch television one night here these days, and you'll see the new world order of politics: Democrats have institutionally become the party of money.

That's true both in terms of the small dollar donations that their party's presidential candidates love to tout and the big donations that provide the bulk of TV revenue for congressional candidates. Here, state Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.) has an enormous financial advantage heading into the final 72 hours of the campaign for a seat long held by Republicans.

After both Cazayoux and his opponent, veteran Republican state legislator Woody Jenkins , stumbled out of their respective party primaries earlier this month, both were nearly broke. But with the backing of party leaders in Washington, Cazayoux's coffers have been flooded with donations that have allowed him to fill the airwaves with feel-good ads showing his parents talking about his love of babies and guns -- while also attacking Jenkins for tax liens from business deals more than a decade ago.

In the last two weeks before an election, the Federal Election Commission only requires candidates to file reports showing donations of $1,000 or more. In that span, Cazayoux took in $505,000 in those large donations. Demonstrating how important this race is to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic leaders have begged their colleagues to pour money from their own campaign accounts and PACs into the race.

They've responded. Of the haul collected by Cazayoux in the last two weeks of April, more than 20 percent -- at least $141,000 -- came from members of the Democratic caucus. A huge chunk of Cazayoux's other contributions have come from national labor unions, the trial lawyers PAC and other party celebrities such as James Carville ($1,000) and former Louisiana Senator John Breaux ($1,000).

Meanwhile, Jenkins has been on financial life support, and he's received little help from his potential colleagues in the House Republican Conference. Jenkins, a member of the state legislature for 28 years who now runs weekly newspapers west of Baton Rouge, raised about one forth of Cazayoux's haul in late April, almost $130,000.

House Republicans have put up a meager $35,000 for Jenkins in the last few weeks. Somewhere in Texas and Illinois, Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert must be rolling their eyes. The former majority leader and former speaker used to strong arm their conference into raising and giving money for key races, almost always leading to a GOP money edge.

Jenkins, with no real presence on TV, has been running a traditional grassroots campaign, littering the region with mailers and door knockers touting the endorsement of the ridiculously popular Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.).

While outside conservative groups have tied Cazayoux to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Jenkins makes Pelosi his No. 1 target on the stump. He's trying to educate voters on the rules of the House and how, no matter what Cazayoux says about his moderate views on guns and abortion, Pelosi rules the roost on Capitol Hill. "Once Nancy Pelosi's chosen speaker, everything else falls into place," he told me.

Those outside groups, including Freedom's Watch and Club for Growth, have effectively roughed up Cazayoux. Ads on TV last night showed him and Obama on the screen together supporting a "big government scheme" on health care, and another hard-hitting ad questioned Cazayoux's views on illegal immigration.

Those ads have driven up Cazayoux's negatives. At the same time, however, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has poured almost $1 million into the race in April, according to FEC records. The DCCC has spent more than double what the National Republican Congressional Committee has coughed up to defend retiring Rep. Richard Baker's seat, which has been reliably Republican for the past 21 years.

That DCCC leverage may have effectively neutralized the effort by the outside groups, giving Cazayoux something of an edge in a race that the most optimistic estimates call for a 20 percent turnout.

Make no mistake, this could be a watershed moment for House Democrats. In the last decade, the Democrats have won just two seats that were previously held by Republicans in the Deep South. One was a Georgia seat drawn up to be Democratic but it took a couple of years for the right candidate -- Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.) - to run and win. The other Democratic "win" on GOP soil was Rep. Rodney Alexander, who won not far from here in 2002 -- only to switch parties in 2004 and join the Republicans.

Now, Jenkins is sounding the alarm that a true Democratic win here would signal long-term dominance by Pelosi.

"It really is the beginning of the Democratic control of the House for a long time, or the beginning of the end," he said.

-- Paul Kane

By Eric Pianin  |  May 1, 2008; 11:25 AM ET
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