Establishment Republicans emerged victorious through this cycle’s Senate primaries, but Tea Party conservatives are eyeing one final November clash in Louisiana.
Due to the state’s all-party primary on Election Day, no nominee is crowned against vulnerable Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) until then. If neither the incumbent nor Rep. Bill Cassidy (R), national Republicans' favorite, top 50 percent, they’re headed for a December runoff.
At least one national conservative group has said they’ll spend to try to boost retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness over Cassidy. At the very least, Tea Party involvement could wound Cassidy in advance of a runoff and, at worst, push Maness to second place, giving Democrats a weaker opponent against Landrieu.
Maness’s presence on the ballot has made a runoff scenario all but assured, said Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who said there’s “absolutely no chance, zilch, none” that Landrieu gets a majority of the vote on Nov. 4.
“Maness will grow, and wherever he grows, I’m sure some of it comes away from Cassidy,” he said. “My impression is Landrieu and Cassidy are probably in the high 30s, both of them, but we still have eight weeks to go.”
And for national Republicans, who might find themselves battling Democrats in the Louisiana runoff for their 51st seat this winter, that could be the nightmare scenario.
One Louisiana Republican operative engaged with the state party there compared Maness to former Rep. Todd Akin, the 2012 Missouri GOP Senate nominee who lost an easy race, after he made controversial comments on rape and pregnancy.
“Maness has proven he’s already had his Todd Akin moments,” the operative said, pointing to Maness’s opposition to the Hurricane Katrina relief package because of, he said, the wasteful spending attached, a fix to curb flood insurance rates and his proposal to eliminate the VA medical system.
In contrast, Landrieu, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, has built her campaign argument around her clout and her ability to get things done for Louisianans and bring back federal dollars for local projects.
“I don’t know how you do that against Mary Landrieu and still win,” the GOP operative added.
To the relief of national Republicans, there’s no indication yet that Maness has begun such a surge, since he hasn’t managed to break double-digits in a single public survey of the race. But his supporters — and even some of his opponents — say the pieces are in place for it to happen.
Maness campaign adviser Kurt Bardella said the contentious battle between Landrieu and Cassidy has given the underdog an opportunity to carve out a niche as a positive alternative to two Washington creatures more focused on attacking each other than getting something done.
“He’s the only one on the Republican side talking about something,” Bardella argued, noting Maness has put out several policy proposals, ranging from energy to jobs.
And now that the “July and August primary shuffle” is over, Bardella said, expect conservatives both in Louisiana and nationwide to start turning to Maness.
Maness has already picked up endorsements from conservative leaders like Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, a onetime Louisiana legislator, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) has endorsed Maness in the race, and its president, Ken Cuccinelli, recently suggested the group plans to make Louisiana one of its main targets in the final months of the elections.
"Col. Maness is the only candidate on the ballot who will fight to cut spending, balance the budget, and repeal Obamacare,” he told The Hill. “The other two candidates have both proven that they will do nothing aside from talking about the big-government destruction of our country and our liberties."
An SCF aide said the group plans to “do what we can to get Col. Rob Maness across the finish line. Maness is a solid conservative, and he's currently surging in the polls."
A Republican operative in the state said there have been rumblings the SCF was in the field with its own poll recently and found Maness drawing double-digit support, but group declined to comment on that rumor.
Such a scenario has Louisiana Republicans on notice.
“The big ‘if’ is if outside groups come in and really bolster him and put a ton of money out there for him,” the Louisiana GOP operative said. “Maness has nowhere to go but up — if he gets to 15 or 20 percent, I call that a surge.”
There’s a chance that, as they did with Akin, Democrats could help encourage such a surge by promoting Maness. The prospect already seems to be on Landrieu’s mind. She’s publicly praised Maness, thanking him for his military service and willingness to participate in debates.
National Republicans won’t publicly entertain the prospect of a Maness rise, noting that with advertising prices about to skyrocket, it’s unlikely the already-depleted coffers of national conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund could do much for Maness.
“Dr. Cassidy is well positioned to defeat Mary Landrieu, who now trails him in the polls and in finances,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Communications Director Brad Dayspring.
NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins did recently suggest, however, the committee is keeping its options open to stop Democratic meddling in the race to protect Cassidy.
The prospect is one that the Louisiana Republican operative admitted is on the GOP’s mind, especially because, if it develops, it’ll be a tough one to mitigate.
“[Attacking Maness is] not going to be helpful. That’s just going to feed their whole scenario of some big establishment cabal working against them,” the operative said. “I don’t see a scenario where we come out and do some of the attacking. … We’re going to need the Maness supporters in the runoff, so you don’t want to go in and offend them.”