Former La. governor hints at a Senate run

May 30, 2004|By Scott Gold | Scott Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

There are moments, amid the din of Louisiana's halls of power, when it seems that Buddy Roemer is the only person who has not declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Still, he is getting most of the buzz.

In an interview last week, the Democrat-turned-Republican - who served as Louisiana governor from 1988 to 1992 - gave the strongest indication yet that he would like to jump back into politics. Though most analysts have said his chances of victory would be slim, the effect of his candidacy could be enormous.

Roemer, 60, said he would announce within three weeks whether he will join the field of candidates vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. John B. Breaux, a moderate Democrat.

Roemer, now a Baton Rouge banker, certainly sounds like a candidate.

"Selfishly, [life] couldn't be going better," he said in the interview last week. "But I'm interested. I think America needs some pulling together - a Republican who will vote with Democrats when it is right. The most John Breaux-like person who could run in this election is Buddy Roemer."

Twelve years after Roemer ended a divisive and colorful career in public office, state politicians are again hanging on his every word.

And not necessarily because they support his candidacy.

In a conservative state that typically backs Republican presidential candidates, Louisiana voters have elected only Democrats to the Senate since Reconstruction. In the past two years, the state has been the site of two increasingly rare victories for Democrats in the South - Sen. Mary L. Landrieu's re-election in 2002 and the election last year of Kathleen Babineaux Blanco as governor.

But the GOP establishment in Louisiana thought it had cleared the Senate field for Rep. David Vitter, a conservative backed by the White House.

Vitter is leading in the polls, ahead of Rep. Chris John, state Treasurer John Kennedy and state Rep. Arthur Morrell, all Democrats. And analysts said a ballot question on same-sex marriage - to be voted on during the Nov. 2 election - could draw conservatives to the polls.

"It's always going to be rough for a Republican in Louisiana to win statewide," said Jon Bargas, executive director of the state Republican Party. "But I think Vitter has a much better chance than other recent candidates."

Roemer's populist positions, however, are largely why leaders of both parties said he could have an effect on the race.

Louisiana has an unusual electoral system. All candidates, regardless of party, run on one ballot. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, which is likely in this race, the top two vote-getters meet in a runoff.

According to one theory, the moderate Roemer could siphon enough votes away from Vitter to enable a Democrat to win the race outright. A more likely outcome, however, is that Roemer's moderate stances would force Vitter to turn hard to the political right this fall to shore up his conservative base. That could make it harder for him to win a matchup with a Democrat in a runoff, analysts said.

Republicans hold 51 of the Senate's 100 seats. But the Democrats claim to be making headway in their quest to win back seats in several states. Control of the Senate, therefore, could be determined by Louisiana.

"If it means the balance of the Senate, it will be really exciting," Bargas said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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