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Fleming takes Democrats' best shot, likely to stay awhile

A year ago, when Rep. Jim McCrery semi-surprisingly announced his retirement, it would have been hard to believe that an obscure coroner from Webster Parish would succeed him. Lessons both locally and nationally may be learned from this.

Dr. John Fleming not only was not considered a contender at the time, he wasn’t even on the radar screen. But after a couple of big names passed as they liked their current situations, local Republicans were presented with a thin bench of elected officials to compete for this due to a mixture of age, inexperience, too much flirtation with the Democrats, or interest in keeping some semblance of a private life.

Still another factor loomed as well – 2008 was not shaping up to be a good GOP year on the national front. When around Baton Rouge a Democrat slid into that seat in a special election months later, that seemed to confirm the trend, and by then it was known a lackluster nominee would head the Republican ticket for the presidency.

This opened up the field for candidates willing to take risks and those who had little connection with government, given the anti-incumbent sentiment that more than anything else was hurting the GOP. Of the three Republicans who finally contested the nomination, only Fleming had any experience in elective office – serving as Webster Parish coroner from 1996-2000 by virtue of racking up about 7,000 votes, and then bowing out after a single term.

With no real record for any of these candidates to fall back on yet unabashedly conservative in their orientations, Fleming ultimately would come out on top because his personal story was the most compelling. Born of humble circumstances, by grit and wit he had persevered to become an extremely successful businessman – the antithesis to what many saw as the typical Washington politician. This was despite his being probably the most conservative candidate in the contest, articulating some issue preferences that on the surface can be easily caricatured negatively but in reality are nuanced, complex, and on the whole comprise very sound public policy.

Fleming then caught a couple of breaks with his Democrat opponent, retiring First District (Caddo Parish) Attorney Paul Carmouche. While Carmouche fit well the Democrat playbook for the South – be conservative on a few, mainly social, issues to mask a willingness to serve liberal interests in Washington – and had a much larger geographical base, the fact that he was a career politician who had not run a campaign in decades not only provided a lengthy record with sufficient negative fodder to publicize, but made it easy to have him appear as just another political insider.

However, as important was Mother Nature which sent Hurricane Gustav to cause postponement of state elections. Without this, the general election would have been held the same day as all national elections; instead, the runoff primaries for party nomination were pushed back to then. Carmouche would show his weakness as a competitor in two ways here: first, when he got forced into a runoff with a black retiree from the rural southern part of the district who spent a tenth of what Carmouche did, and that he, an old-time white politician preaching that he was conservative, depended so much on black voters for support. On Nov. 4, with Barack Obama on the top of the ticket, Carmouche got about 93,000 votes in wining the nomination.

But on Dec. 6, with no other contest on the ballot, in the general election that should have been on Nov. 4, not even 93,000 votes total were cast. Carmouche’s total was only about 47 percent of his runoff total, while Fleming exceeded his total from a month previous by 3 percent. In other words, a significant portion of Republicans who voted for Fleming’s runoff opponent showed up again and voted for Fleming, while many who had voted for Carmouche and his opponent, probably largely blacks, sat out the general election. Had an inspiring figure such as Obama topped the ticket as would have happened without the delay, Carmouche would have won.

Republicans have faced a lot of bad luck this election cycle, with the difference in the presidential election being an economic crisis triggered by Democrat over-regulation of the mortgage industry yet blame placed on Republicans. Yet the postponed election finally got something to break their way, at least in northwest Louisiana. And it’s a break Democrats will rue for years, because the Fourth District’s history is that once elected, a Member of Congress typically stays as long as he likes. Unless he makes some seriously questionable and/or liberal policy choices, Fleming can stay in this seat as long as he likes, thereby adding another chapter to his interesting life story.

Finally, when Republicans were down after Pres. Bill Clinton’s 1992 triumph, the first sign of a turnaround came when a Republican knocked off an incumbent Democrat senator a month later. Two years later, the GOP swept into power on Capitol Hill. Is the Fleming victory a sign that Republican fortunes are rebounding from their nadir?

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