Lafayette, La.

Deep in the swampland, a battle is brewing. It is less than two weeks from the start of alligator hunting season. The gators have dug their holes in the bankside, and their young have all hatched. The population is at its peak. Jogging paths near large bodies of water are closed off. Now is the time to keep a close watch on your pets and not let your children go wading. The reptiles are ornery and hungry, packed in and fiercely protecting their territory, preparing for the fight of their lives.

Louisiana’s politics match its ecology. The state is overpopulated with congressmen. It lost a seat in the post-Katrina population decline and redistricting, and now two members, Charles Boustany and Jeff Landry, are vying for the same district.

When I went down to cover the race, I was told that the only way to know the area was to travel by water. So despite my better judgment, I took to the swamp, in an itty bitty boat. As we glided around beneath the shade of a hundred shaggy cypress trees, I asked my guide, “There’s not going to be any, uh, swamp snakes falling out of the tree and into the boat, right?”

“Nah,” he said. “Just don’t knock us into any trees.”

Perhaps detecting my unease, my guide, Eric, tells me a fable: “One time, I watched a little baby gator sneak up on this great big bird, who was way too big for him. He bit the bird on the tail and it squawked, turned around, and poked his eye out. The bird had a sore butt, the gator had one eye, and they were both pissed about it.”

As it happens, this just about sums up the race in Louisiana’s Third District: Rep. Jeff Landry is one tenacious little gator—perhaps not a mortal threat to Boustany, but daring enough to be a real pain.

The new district, in the southeastern portion of the state, includes Lafayette (the largest city), Chalmette, Lake Charles, and Thibodaux. This is Acadiana, Cajun country, where the boudin is abundant and introductions include the question, “You’re Catholic, right?” Thanks to a thriving offshore drilling industry and high oil prices, the area is pretty much recession proof. In spite of hurricanes and Deepwater Horizon, it has bounced back and then some. Unemployment in Lafayette is only 5.3 percent. It’s one of the most conservative districts in the country, and a Republican can expect to stay a while. In 2010, Boustany ran unopposed.

Unlike other member-versus-member races, this contest won’t be settled in the next few days, or even weeks. Louisiana prefers to let the candidates slug it out until November 6 in what’s known as a “Cajun Primary,” where $600 or 1,000 signatures gets you on the ballot representing whatever party you choose. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there will be a runoff in December. After filing their official qualifying papers on August 15, both men are gearing up for open season—on each other.

Boustany’s camp says Landry is an extremist obstructionist on a vanity quest. Last June, Landry was the only Republican House member to refuse the president’s invitation to the White House to talk fiscal policy, and he was a firm “no” on raising the debt ceiling. In Boustany’s view, Landry’s intransigence will get him left out of the room when the real decisions are made. “It was a popular vote and a good sound bite,” Boustany says. “But it didn’t solve our budget problems. We had to take responsible steps.”

Landry’s campaign points out that Boustany’s vote for a “grand bargain” didn’t accomplish much either. They paint Boustany as a high-society city-slicker who’s lost touch with the voters in South Louisiana—an auto-bailout-loving, debt-ceiling-raising lapdog to the party leadership.

Redistricting has given Boustany a huge advantage—the new district is mostly Boustany’s old turf, with a sliver of Landry’s parishes (St. Martin, St. Mary, and Iberia) tacked on. But Landry doesn’t mind an uphill fight: “They’ve got more money than us, they’re gonna make me out to be Satan’s brother. That’s just fine,” he says. “I’ve been an underdog all my life. I came from nothing.”

Indeed, this sugar farmer turned sheriff’s deputy turned lawyer seems to flourish on the fighting side of politics. In the 2010 elections, expectations for Landry were low. Early polling numbers were abysmal. But with the help of the Tea Party, Landry ended up beating the establishment candidate, former speaker of the Louisiana house Hunt Downer, by 30 points.

In a typical Tea Party vs. establishment race, “Washington insider” is a ready insult. And Landry is quick to point out Boustany’s close friendship with Speaker of the House John Boehner (Boustany’s chief of staff is a former Boehner staffer). But as longtime Louisiana political writer John Maginnis notes, “Down here, people are more comfortable with the idea of having a ‘Washington insider’ as their congressman. They know that insiders get things done.”

Although both congressmen are technically incumbents, Boustany is certainly more of an insider. He is a nephew by marriage to Edwin Edwards (who served four terms in the governor’s mansion, then 10 years in federal prison). And Lafayette is home to a thriving Lebanese community—where the Boustany family is at the helm.

A family of notable and respected lawyers and doctors, the Boustanys are at the vanguard of the Lafayette elite. Boustany’s father—like the congressman, a doctor—was the town’s coroner for many years, and his mother led the Catholic bishop’s charity ball, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. My hotel in Lafayette is on Kaliste Saloom Road, named after Boustany’s great-uncle, a revered local judge.

Even if locals don’t know about the congressional race, they probably know Boustany from his medical practice. A cardiac surgeon in the land of deep-fried-everything, he has operated on their fathers, their husbands, and their grandmas. Though his quiet, soporific speaking style doesn’t quite fit retail politics, it makes for a reassuring bedside manner.

Boustany’s deep roots in the community have forced Landry to get personal on the campaign trail: “I know you know Charles,” he tells voters. “I know him too. It’s uncomfortable to vote against him. He’s your doctor, he’s your neighbor, your kids went to school with him. But if you want your congressmen to make tough votes, then you’ve got to make a tough vote.”

Though Landry would like to paint his opponent as a squish, their voting records are similar: Both have 100 percent ratings from the National Right to Life Committee, both support full repeal of Obama-care, and both are climbing all over each other to praise the Ryan budget. Except for the debt ceiling, Landry hadn’t yet been in Congress for some of the big votes he criticizes Boustany for (like TARP), so it’s hard to compare what Landry says he would have done with what Boustany did.

In fact, the policy difference that sticks out is Boustany’s surprisingly weak stance on Israel—not typically a flashpoint for Louisiana voters.

Charles Boustany is one of only two Republicans to have ever been endorsed by J Street, the left-wing advocacy group that bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” (with far more emphasis on the latter than the former). In 2009, he attended J Street’s first annual conference, even after Israeli ambassador Michael Oren boycotted it, citing policies within the organization “that may impair the interests of Israel.” Boustany eventually severed all connections with the group, after discovering that “they were dishonest with me about where their funding came from,” namely, from billionaire George Soros. J Street maintains that Boustany was “with them from the beginning,” and that the party “forced” the resignation of this “very brave” congressman. The Arab American Institute rates Boustany at -1, indicating a “mixed” record, while Landry has a -4, indicating a more pro-Israel record.

In 2009, the U.N. released the Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of intentionally targeting civilians in the Gaza conflict. The report was written with help from Hamas, but not from the Israeli government, which refused to cooperate. Richard Goldstone himself later wrote of his “regret that our fact-finding mission did not have .  .  . evidence” that later emerged showing that civilian deaths were unintentional. “It probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes.”

Congress voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Goldstone Report as biased. Charles Boustany was one of only 36 members of Congress who dissented. Why?

“It was a protest vote,” Boustany says. “I was upset that no one in Congress had actually read the report.” Had he read it? “No,” he said. “We weren’t given enough time to read it. That’s why I voted against it.” Boustany also helped write the dovish Carnahan-Boustany-Cohen letter in 2009 telling President Obama that they “support the course you are charting for American policy in the Middle East.”

Landry, on the other hand, does not support the course Obama is charting in the Middle East. “I stand by Israel 100 percent,” he told me. “And Louisianans do too. They just don’t know where Charles is on this issue. I was speaking to a church group the other day and I said, ‘Who here supports Israel?’ Every single hand in that room went up. Christians stand by Israel.”

If Landry is right, perhaps highlighting his differences with Boustany on Israel will help him make inroads in Lafayette, where (as of 2005) 54 percent of the population is Catholic.

Landry may also benefit from a last-minute addition to the race. Just hours before the qualifying deadline, Democrat Ron Richard, a lawyer from Lake Charles, filed his papers. If Richard pulls enough votes from the more moderate Boustany, then Landry has a much better shot, at least at forcing a runoff.

For the most part, though, Landry’s and Boustany’s attacks are full of cartoonish exaggeration: “Boustany wants to take a scalpel to the debt, when what we need is a hatchet,” Landry told me.

“Landry thinks we need to tear the whole thing down,” Boustany said of entitlement reform. “What we really need is a scalpel. I want to do open heart surgery on the budget.”

No wonder political reporters have loved this state for generations.

Kate Havard is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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