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Can Rep. Jefferson Win a 10th Term?

In 2006, Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) defied the odds by winning reelection despite heavily publicized bribery allegations against him. Now he's running for reelection again, this time with a bona fide federal indictment hanging over him, a trial looming in December and three family members also facing prosecution. Can he win?

One thing is clear: Democratic leaders aren't likely to lift a finger to help Jefferson. "I think we'll probably take the same posture we took in his last election," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said today. That means the party leadership will again sit quietly and pray for Jefferson to lose, prayers that weren't answered in 2006.

Last time around, Jefferson came in first in the November balloting, garnering 30 percent of the vote to state Rep. Karen Carter's (D) 22 percent. The two proceeded to a December runoff, where Jefferson prevailed, 57 to 43 percent. Jefferson benefited in that contest from the backing of many key leaders in New Orleans, including Mayor Ray Nagin (D). The incumbent ran to the right in the runoff, touting his religious faith and accusing Carter of supporting late-term abortion and gay marriage.

Jefferson invoked his faith again in announcing his re-election bid Tuesday, saying he and his family "have sworn a great oath to trust God and to fight on to vindicate ourselves and our good name." Jefferson's rhetoric may be the same as it was in 2006, but the landscape appears different, and several high-profile challengers are eyeing the contest against him.

State Rep. Cedric Richmond and Jefferson Parish Councilman Byron Lee, both Democrats, have already announced their plans to run. Richmond backed Jefferson last time around, while Lee supported Carter. The New Orleans Times-Picayune mentions several other potential Democratic candidates, including Carter (now known as Karen Carter Peterson), former local news anchor Helena Moreno and Kenya Smith, who just stepped down as an aide to Nagin. A handful of Republicans are also mulling bids, though the seat is expected to stay Democratic regardless of Jefferson's fate.

The key question will be whether voters in the New Orleans-based 2nd district will continue to give Jefferson the benefit of the doubt as he fights his legal troubles. In 2006, he argued that voters didn't have all the facts and that he was the victim of malicious government leaks. Now there is an actual indictment on the books, full of specific details and allegations against Jefferson bolstered by documents, secret recordings and testimony.

While Democratic leaders did nothing to help Jefferson in his last race, several of his fellow Congressional Black Caucus members did step up to give him money. Six CBC members have donated to Jefferson this cycle, though none since last August. Through March 31, Jefferson's campaign committee had just $57,000 in the bank and $257,000 in debts, though he owed most of it to himself for personal loans to the campaign.

In the 2006 contest, both he and Carter spent well over $1 million, meaning Jefferson would have to significantly step up fundraising to be competitive again (and he's also raising money for his Legal Expense Fund to pay lawyers' bills).

The next date to watch is Sept. 6, when the Democratic primary will happen. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will proceed to a party runoff Oct. 4. With his money and supporters drying up, that could well be Jefferson's Waterloo. Though if he does lose that day, he can always use that extra time to prepare for his Dec. 2 trial.

By Ben Pershing  |  June 18, 2008; 1:25 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign , Ethics and Rules  
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