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Can the GOP actually win the Second District?

State Sen. Derrick Shepherd’s entry into the Second Congressional District contest held by embattled incumbent Rep. William Jefferson could spark a wave that would cause the unthinkable to happen – the district’s residents sending a Republican to Washington in November.

This district – in (pre-disaster) population terms about 80 percent Orleans Parish (minus small portions of Lakeview and the West Bank) plus an eastern chunk of Jefferson Parish on both sides of the Mississippi – from the present to any of its past incarnations (basically when it was just New Orleans) never has been competitive for a Republican. And even in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the numbers are decisively against Republicans. But a relatively recent scenario exists that could provide a blueprint for a GOP win.

In 1994, long-time incumbent and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Democrat Rep. Dan Rostenkowski fell prey to scandal, later going to prison on corruption charges. His indictments came only months before his reelection, after he had secured a place in the general election as the Democrat nominee. What normally would have turned out to be a Republican sacrificial lamb, political novice and former Army officer Michael Flanagan, defeated Rostenkowski as a result. (Just how aberrant this was became evident in 1996, when Flanagan lost big to now-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now himself embattled by corruption charges; if any two states can compete with Louisiana in the area of big-time corruption, they’re Illinois and New Jersey.)

If Shepherd’s entry presages other heavyweights jumping in, such as New Orleans Constable and former city councilman Lambert Bossiere, Jr. and state Rep. Karen Carter, things could get very interesting. They have every incentive to join because open seats in Congress don’t happen often and history shows that once somebody gets into this district’s seat, typically they can stay there a long time. Such a chance may not come for the rest of their political lifetimes.

Even if Jefferson doesn’t resign or withdraw from running for reelection under the weight of the federal investigation into his financial activities, his precarious position (possibly made even greater by a likely indictment), ambitious politicians may see him as vulnerable as if he weren’t running. But this perception could cause a tremendous backfire for Democrat fortunes.

Every Democrat candidate that enters the race while Jefferson stays in it takes votes from him and (to a lesser degree) any other Democrat, but if only one credible Republican is in it, he gains relatively because votes will not be taken from him and there is a point of diminishing returns for Jefferson losing votes; there is a certain core that will stick with Jefferson even if he and Prisoner 28213-034 were found to be best buddies. Thus, we can envision the district’s vote as three distinct portions: the largest being the Jefferson do-or-die crowd, the next bunch being anti-Jefferson but preferring a Democrat, and the smallest being a solid Republican vote that would turn out for a credible Republican.

Fortunately for the GOP, there is a quality Republican running, Joe Lavigne, but for him to have any chance of winning he would need electoral good luck – and that may happen. With enough quality Democrats running, they might divide up the anti-Jefferson vote enough so that Jefferson and Lavigne could get put in the general election runoff. Then the anti-Jefferson voters would face a choice, perhaps terrible to some of them – vote for somebody they think is a crook, or vote for a Republican. Depending on what happens to Jefferson and/or his intransigence, things might set up for a Lavigne victory.

Of course, this situation differs from the Illinois example above because there it was two white politicians going after it in an overwhelmingly majority white district. This fall, the scenario presented here would feature a white Republican versus black Democrat in a heavily black district, damaging Lavigne’s chances given a history of black voters being less likely to cross over to vote for white candidates than the opposite. Still, the Second District has the potential to deliver a stunning surprise just after Thanksgiving Day.

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