Hot House Race in Louisiana

Many family dynasties have been built around politics, and now one ailing Southern representative would like to see his 30-year-old son succeed him when he retires this year. But five other candidates think this Billy Tauzin III (search) is neither qualified nor deserving of the job.

Welcome to Louisiana's 3rd Congressional District (search), home of the historic Cajun coast, with its famous seafood industry, offshore oil and gas rigs and inland sugar cane trade. Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin was first elected as a Democrat in 1980 and switched to the Republican Party in 1995. This year, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer, underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment and is retiring. Tauzin III says he is eager to fill his father's shoes.

"I know that I have the energy and the ability to work hard and I have new and positive ideas," Tauzin, a former lobbyist for BellSouth, told

Though not a lot of polling has been done on this race, both independent and partisan polls have shown Tauzin in a double-digit lead as of late September.

But unlike any other state in the union, Louisiana skips the primary and instead holds an open poll on Election Day (search). With three Republicans and three Democrats running in this year's race, if any candidate fails to get 50 percent, the top two candidates go to a runoff in December. None of the recent polling has Tauzin above 36 percent.

"This is definitely a vulnerability to Republicans," said Nathan Gonzales, analyst for the Rothenberg Political Report. "It is likely that there will be a runoff."

Whether he will be facing a fellow Republican or a Democrat appears up for debate. Nevertheless, Tauzin's opponents like to say the people of the district aren't necessarily going to vote for a name, but what is behind it.

"There was some rumoring that [Tauzin] might be able to pull this off without a runoff — there was no single person in the state that believed that," said Brent Littlefield, spokesman for Republican Craig Romero, a former state senator of 11 years who was in second place, but trailing Tauzin by 17 percent in a pair of polls conducted in late September.

Romero has repeatedly attacked Tauzin for his lack of experience, and the state GOP for breaking tradition to endorse Tauzin — a move Littlefield said was pushed by the elder Tauzin.

"We can do better and I'm going to see that we do," said Charmaine Caccioppi, one of three Democratic candidates and former chief of public policy and economic development of Greater New Orleans Inc., formerly known as the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce. She said voters are disenchanted with what they see as an "old boy network" that has often ignored concerns about issues like health care and building communities.

"The special interests in Washington, D.C., have sat in their smoked-filled rooms and have decided who would be the voice of the 3rd District. But you know I have faith in the 3rd District — I know they are dying to have someone fight for them," she added.

Jon Bargas, executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana, said their own polling found Tauzin "well into the 40s." Bargas said the party wanted to pour its resources into Tauzin's candidacy to avoid a runoff and possible close race with a Democrat. Their move has been criticized by members of the GOP state central committee, but the endorsement stands.

About 65 percent of voters in the 3rd District are registered Democrats, but analysts say it is a conservative community and the older Tauzin, who had risen through the ranks to become the chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, has won re-election by wide margins year after year.

"The Tauzin family is very popular. [Tauzin III's] father has served the district well," said Bargas. "The people trust the name, they trust his dad and they trust Billy III as a conservative Republican."

But the other candidates are unsure that voters are even clear that they will be voting for the son and not the father on Election Day, and hope to get a crack at the younger Tauzin in a runoff.

"There is still a confusion factor," said state Rep. Damon Baldone, a Democrat who claims to be the best candidate to handle the state's coastal erosion problem, which is shaping up to be the biggest issue in the race. "We're tired of the old politics where somebody gets in because of their name."

Tauzin III has received endorsements from the Republican members of the Louisiana delegation, including Rep. David Vitter, who is running for Senate, Rep. Rodney Alexander, who recently switched parties to become a Republican, Rep. Richard Baker and Rep. Jim McCreary. He also has received key donations from national leadership political action committees.

"They're trying to elect a namesake," said Charlie Melancon, a former state representative and president of the American Sugar Cane League. Melancon is leading among Democrats in the race, and some say he could put up the best fight for a runoff against Tauzin.

"One of my missions is to make sure traditional Democrats know that and let them know I am a viable candidate," said Melancon. "I have fought and won battles with sugar, worked with economic development specialists trying to bring jobs to this area. I just feel I bring more experience and ability and know-how to the collective front."

Republican Kevin Chiasson, a physician, acknowledges he is the "dark horse" in the race, with no budget to speak of and little standing in the polls. But he said he is trying to bring integrity back into the system, and does not want to see the process go untested.

"There wasn't that much of a choice — certainly not a variety of choices," he said, explaining his decision to run. "As one pollster pointed out, there is about 32 percent still undecided. That's what we're working on."

Meanwhile, Tauzin said he takes in stride criticism about his role in the race and his father's help.

"It's an open election and anyone in Louisiana has the opportunity to run for this office and I shouldn't be excluded," he said. "Some of them try to make [my father] an issue. I am my father's son, but I am my own man and I can't run from who I am. I know who I am and where I stand."