Shades of S.C. controversy in La.

A Democratic candidate challenging Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) accused the GOP of pulling a South Carolina-style political ploy by convincing black candidates to run as Independents.

“That’s the Republican game plan,” state Rep. Cedric Richmond (D) said. “To get as many black independents to run as they can so that in the general election they can siphon off Democratic votes.”

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The district, one of the most Democratic in the county, contains a majority of black voters.

Richmond called a local report on Louisiana’s BayouBuzz website that named two potential Independent challengers to Cao “inaccurate,” but said it foreshadows the GOP’s strategy in the district.

“I won’t call them plants, but they’re getting a lot of encouragement from Republicans,” he said. And alluding to South Carolina Senate candidate Alvin Greene (D), whom some Democrats claim is a GOP plant,

Richmond said, “I think that sort of thing is playing out all around the country. Look at South Carolina.”

Richmond said he was skeptical that neither of the candidates mentioned was serious about running, noting that one — the Rev. Byron Clay — has made multiple campaign appearances with him.

Clay, the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told The Hill he is not running for the seat and just signed onto the Cao campaign.

“He has been a great congressman for this district and I will be campaigning for him throughout the district,” Clay said.

As for the rumor that he was considering an Independent bid for the seat, “I kind of enjoyed the rumor for a while, but I have no desire for elected office,” he said.

Another potential Independent candidate, Tommie Vassel, said he is exploring such a bid. But Vassel, the president pro tem of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, denied that he was doing so at the behest of Republicans or anyone else in the district.

“No Republican has approached me and suggested that, under disguise or anything else,” he said. Vassel, who called himself a “loyal Democrat,” said the prospect of enduring a Democratic primary and then a runoff pushed him toward an Independent bid. “The money you would have to spend to run three times is just not an option.”

There are two Democrats vying for the nomination in the Aug. 28 primary. Richmond is considered the front-runner.

Cao campaign Chairman Bryan Wagner said the campaign is not encouraging black candidates to run as Independents. But he did say the campaign always expected multiple Independents to be a part of the mix, as is often the case in elections in Louisiana. “Not all Independents would necessarily help the Republican candidate,” he said.

“We’ve been hearing that Democrats are the ones who want Independents in the race to break up Cao’s support,” said a Republican operative close to the Cao campaign. “Multiple candidates running as Independents isn’t out of the ordinary in Louisiana.”

Cao is this cycle’s most vulnerable Republican House member. His district is one of the country’s most Democratic, voting for President Barack Obama over Republican nominee John McCain 75 percent to 23 in 2008.

Cao won the seat a month after the presidential election in a close race with former Rep. William Jefferson (D). Even though Jefferson was indicted on corruption charges months before the election, he survived a Democratic primary and came close to Cao on Election Day. Cao won with 50 percent of the vote.

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Wagner said despite the demographics of the district, Cao has raised his profile considerably since taking office and won’t be a pushover come November.

Democrats, both in-state and nationally, don’t sound worried by the potential for Independent candidates to jump into the race. The feeling seems to be that as long as there is a Democratic candidate on the ballot who isn’t under indictment, the district will revert to Democratic control.

“Congressman Cao has done anything he needed in order to stay in good graces with his national Republican benefactors and try to block President Obama’s agenda in a district where voters strongly support it,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee regional press secretary Jesse Ferguson. “The moment Cao voted against historic health insurance reform was the moment we knew our Democratic nominee will be successful in November.”