Alford: Guilt by association a familiar theme in congressional runoff

Democrats playing in the runoff election in the New Orleans-based 2nd Congressional District are trying to tear each other apart over alleged connections to conservative figureheads like former President Donald Trump and former Gov. Bobby Jindal. 

The war of personalities has mostly taken place in direct mail pieces. Still, the tactic of tethering a Democrat to Trump, in particular, could become part of a national trend in 2022 as regularly scheduled congressional elections heat up.

The 2nd District’s position as a test case on this front is notable, especially since the race between state Sen. Troy Carter and state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson could be settled by Republican voters.

While Carter enjoyed a healthy lead in the primary, the endorsement of Peterson by third-place finisher Gary Chambers afforded the runoff contenders equal footing in this second round—and that may eventually be enough to cut the Democratic vote in half. The high-profile runoff is scheduled for this weekend—on Saturday, April 24.

The Trump card played by Democrats in this special election is far from novel. From about 2012 to 2017, Republicans running against fellow Republicans in open and party primaries around the country used a similar mantra that substituted connections to former President Barack Obama. 

Flipping the script to Trump over the past week or so has been the Peterson campaign, which is saturating mailboxes with a piece that suggests Carter is “supported by Trump’s friends and donors.” The mailer also endeavors to draw comparisons between Trump and Carter.

Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville says Carter and Peterson are so close together on most policy issues that the campaigns are now looking for stylistic differences. He says the “view from afar” is that Peterson is a “national Democrat” and Carter is a “local bread-and-butter guy.”

Asked whether the Trump tactic could become a national trend in Democratic races next year, Carville says, “You might see that, maybe when you have low turnout elections and you want to make a race more lively. But honestly, I think these direct mail firms have too much time on their hands. It’s borderline silly. I would hope my party would be more sane than that.”

Lynda Woolard, a former Obama campaign aide who has run grassroots mobilization efforts for the Louisiana Democratic Party, predicts the anti-Carter mailer will become a widely used template in the next national cycle.

“I suspect we will see more use of Trump in every kind of matchup, whether it’s Republican vs Republican, Democrat vs Democrat, or any combination,” she says. “The issue for Democratic candidates is, regardless of the identity of their opponent, will they be willing to call out Trump’s acolytes who promote the Big Lie, downplay the Jan. 6 insurrection and work to suppress the vote? The Democratic base wants to see that kind of strength from the people we elect to represent our values. As to how effective Trump will be as an issue, as always, it depends on the district.”

Pollster and consultant John Couvillon says the 2nd District is looking increasingly divided when it comes to the Democratic vote. During the first four days, early voting in the runoff has been lower than what was seen in the primary. But what has remained basically the same, according to Couvillon, is Republican participation.

“There hasn’t been much of a drop-off,” Couvillon says. “The Republican vote could put one of them over the top, and it could count for as much as 16 percent of the vote.”

As for that Trump mailer, he says, “It could potentially become a trend nationally, but I’m not convinced of its effectiveness. To me, something like that would be more effective with a ideologically liberal audience, a white liberal audience, which was already either going for Peterson or voted for Chambers in the primary.”

The Carter campaign dropped its own mail piece recently pointing out that the BOLD (Black Organization for Leadership Development) political organization, to which Peterson has close ties, endorsed Republican Bobby Jindal during his first run for governor.

And proving once again that turnabout is fair play, Woolard says she has already seen anonymous text campaigns targeting Peterson for accepting campaign cash from donors 15 years ago when she last ran for Congress—donors who many years later supported Trump’s presidential bid. 

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.