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Motive for insipid Perkins comments on Cassidy unclear

Maybe it’s because there’s an odd kind of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery going on here. Or perhaps it’s an unwritten new rule that anyone who at some point has served in the Louisiana Legislature who contemplates getting elected to Congress from Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District is required to infect himself with athlete’s mouth. These are the more rational explanations as to why Tony Perkins damaged any elective political career he had left in the state with just a few short words critiquing Rep. Bill Cassidy.

Republican Perkins, who a dozen years ago served in the state Legislature and was out of the running for defeat Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu in her first reelection attempt, last week with seemingly little provocation or cause opined that Cassidy, running this time against Landrieu and increasingly perceived as gaining the upper hand over her, could not defeat her. Indeed, he argued that “I think his problem is his record. He’s been pretty weak on the issues. If the Republicans want to win, they actually need to find a stronger candidate.”

Perkins does not see himself as that candidate, but declined to endorse as a better candidate either of the two Republican alternatives presently announced, state Rep. Paul Hollis and military retiree Rob Maness. He did not preclude running for the Sixth or for the Senate in 2016, if in the latter case Sen. David Vitter will have won the governor’s race in 2015 and therefore have vacated the latter spot.

But his claim that Cassidy has been too “weak” as a conservative on issues appears to grasp onto the counterfactual, false narrative that Cassidy is not a solid conservative. By voting record, Cassidy certainly has been, with a more conservative lifetime average than the typical extant GOP member of the House, and that 87/100 (American Conservative Union) average in absolute terms doesn’t stray much from conservative perfection. If Perkins considers this “weak,” then he has an extremely exacting litmus test that would declare a large number of federal elected Republicans with solid conservative voting records as insufficient.

Even more curious is his contention that Cassidy comes up short in “strength.” The best single indicator of candidate strength is the amount of money they raise, because most donors are rational decision-makers with their resources. While some may give to low-quality candidates because of ideological purity or other idiosyncratic qualities, most giving comes from donors who believe the candidate has a pretty good chance of winning, so that they are not throwing away money on a losing cause.

By this metric, Cassidy has positioned himself as one of the GOP’s top candidates this year. He now has gone over the $5 million mark in money raised through the end of the year, but using the official statistics through the end of the third quarter, 2013, he ranked fourth overall of all Republicans running, behind only a largely self-funded candidate who is an underdog in Massachusetts, and two Senate party leaders. Keep in mind that Vitter when he ran initially in 2004 gathered $7.7 million for this office, and won without a runoff. By these metrics, it’s inconceivable to argue Cassidy is not a quality candidate who can win – even as the consensus grows he is no worse than on equal terms at this point with Landrieu in electability.

But almost beyond understanding is why Perkins would volunteer views of questionable validity in the first place, if he continues contemplate making a run at federal office of his own. By essentially saying he would not support Cassidy, he’s guaranteed no support from him if he wanted to run as his successor in the district, nor in 2016 from at this point the better-than-even-money other senator from the state. Nor does the rendering of an opinion about Cassidy’s presumed shortcomings likely to endear those now volunteering for and giving to Cassidy the same for a future Perkins candidacy.

In an odd, symmetrical twist, this echoes the unforced error made only weeks ago by a Sixth District candidate, Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, referring to Perkins himself. At the formal launch of his campaign, Claitor said one reason he was running was to prevent the likes of Perkins from becoming that representative. As Perkins is closely identified as a social conservative and commutes to Washington in his job leading such an organization, for that reason some social conservatives immediately soured on Claitor, joined by elites who think a candidate who immediately sets out to alienate voters probably isn’t a winner and therefore isn’t worth their time and efforts.

Now it’s Perkins deliberately antagonizing potential supporters and also creating the impression that he’s not the sharpest political tool in the shed. This might involve, as in the case of Claitor, a strategy of posturing that assumes the benefits of assuming the position exceed any costs. In Perkins’ case, it may be to assign oneself a label of being a reliable ultra-conservative with an eye on a future campaign.

However, that assumes that there’s a winnable campaign on the horizon. For the current Senate contest, his chances of winning there are virtually zero, given the consolidation of support around Cassidy that leaves a putative Perkins candidacy with the same probability of victory as that of Hollis or Maness. And the train is leaving the station for the Sixth District as well, with Claitor already actively pursuing that and another candidate, Republican businessman Paul Dietzel, already doing well in raising funds and picking up endorsements.

If Vitter triumphs at the state level, perhaps running as his replacement is Perkins’ best shot of all of these – and that Perkins supports Vitter’s new quest and therefore may expect reciprocation adds fuel to this fire. But if Vitter doesn’t, it’s all for naught, and even if he does, there’s sure to be stiff competition from individuals who hang around the state consistently and/or who have held or who are in high-profile political offices and/or who have just as good, if not better (as Perkins largely has become identified with social issues given the nature of his job) conservative credentials. If that’s what these comments were all about, with so many uncertainties abounding, it seems like an awfully high risk, low potential payoff tactic.

Unless Perkins isn’t thinking about running for any office at all, but instead searches for attention and relevance. He testifies that individuals in which he seems to store some faith clamor for him to run for office. By throwing out unsolicited comments about hot contests in the state, as if he’s a future candidate for something, he provides reinforcement to them that they should continue to invest importance in him. It also draws his media attention, spreading the perception that he is a political player.

Supporting this interpretation is that if he were serious contemplating a return to elective office, he would not have so freely voiced his opinion about something to which he had no obvious connection, other having been a vanquished past Landrieu opponent. Someone cannily plotting a comeback would avoid trying to alienate any potential supporters over an action that carries little if any political gain. But if there’s no intent to reenter elective office, any cost disappears, making this not a case of foot-in-mouth.

Regardless of motive, his remarks perpetuate the weird state of illusion that some Republicans and conservatives persist in maintaining concerning Cassidy. The record is clear: the guy’s a conservative, and he’s proven the most capable candidate ever to try to knock off Landrieu. Repeating that isn’t so does not change those facts.

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