Every election cycle has its rock stars, those politicians who affect fawning followers like a modern-day Elvis or jump off drum sets to loud and blinding pyrotechnics. Save an example or two elsewhere, this year’s biggest tickets can be found in the 6th Congressional District, which is anchored by Baton Rouge and has long been devoid of dramatic flair.
It’s Louisiana’s only open congressional seat, and it drew 13 candidates during qualifying. Two have already dropped out. But a dynamic duo remain, consisting of one man who has already left his mark on the political landscape and another who may be in the infancy of scratching out his own.
Edwin Edwards, who lives in Gonzales, is the Mick Jagger of the pair, although 16 years older than Jagger at age 87. And like Jagger with his swagger, the former governor needs no further introduction.
Garret Graves of Baton Rouge, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former coastal czar, is more the frontman you haven’t heard about yet. Even though the neighborhood kid with the skateboard swears you soon will. If you live in the 6th, however, Graves, 42, has been a fixture inside your TV lately.
In their own unique ways, they’re two of the most flamboyant and politically talented candidates on the fall ballot. They’re also likely to end up on the December runoff ballot together, if you believe the party influencers and some of the polling data out there.
Edwards already has the backing of the Louisiana Democratic Party, and few would bet against him making the runoff. The top-tier officials of the Louisiana Republican Party, elected and otherwise, are quietly placing their markers on Graves.
Graves is facing two state legislators, Sen. Dan Claitor and Rep. Lenar Whitney, who have voter-rich bases of support in Baton Rouge and the Terrebonne-Lafourche region, respectively. There’s also the first GOP candidate to announce for the field, entrepreneur Paul Dietzel, who has decent name recognition, a strong volunteer infrastructure and a small hold in Ascension and Livingston parishes.
Politically, from a tactical standpoint and putting personality and ideology aside, Graves has made the biggest splash. His new campaign finance report to be filed this week will show more than $1 million raised from 1,100 donors.
That’s more than any other non-incumbent congressional candidate this cycle in Louisiana and it puts him on par with some sitting congressmen. It’s an earth-shattering showing for a first-time candidate, with financial support from the billionaire Koch brothers and shipyard magnate Boysie Bollinger. Consultant Mary Matalin is also helping him raise money.
In addition to three mailers reaching 90,000 voters, Graves is expected to spend as much as $400,000 or more on TV during his primary campaign. Edwards, meanwhile, is losing the TV battle. He has yet to go on television with a paid commercial. “I’m probably not going to have any commercials,” he says, adding, “I just don’t have the money.” As of Aug. 2, Edwards had $145,000 in the bank.
While Edwards is known for his sharp tongue, he may have met his match, or as close as one can get, with Graves. They’re the guaranteed zinger-givers at any forum or debate. At an event last week hosted by the Louisiana State Medical Society, Graves said, “My health experience is extensive. I’ve stitched myself twice.” Edwards, on medical marijuana, chimed in, “It’s the only forbidden thing I’ve never been accused of.”
In a poll paid for by Graves and conducted by Magellan Strategies of Baton Rouge, 1,423 participants placed Edwards first with 31%, followed by Graves with 20%. Dietzel clocked in with 15%; Claitor, 12%; and Whitney, 7%. To be fair, all four of the Republicans have internal polls showing their own path to victory, with the names separated by just one to nine points, regardless of how they’re stacked.
Yet Graves’ money and political prowess are hard to miss—almost as unmistakable as Edwards’ political strength, even after time served in federal prison. The telling difference between the two is Edwards has yet to win any hypothetical runoff polled, while Graves is sitting pretty should he be able to shake any negative connections to Jindal and survive the primary.
At the end of the end of the day, voters could move in another different direction and decide two rock stars are two too many. But for now, Edwards and Graves are the candidates driving around in pink Cadillacs and playing to stadium crowds.