POLITICS:

Gulf spill didn't change trajectory of La. Senate race

On May 27, 2010, a month after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, then-Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) addressed the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the most dramatic moment in a day of congressional hearings about a deepening crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

Describing his flyover of the Gulf oil spill, Malancon warned that, as Louisianans, "our culture is threatened, our coastal economy is threatened. Everything that I know and love is at risk."

Melancon then paused, wiped away a tear and choked out a few words about his state's degraded wetlands before abruptly ending his speech and walking out of the hearing room biting his quivering lip.

If it was political theater, it was well played. Not only did Melancon's comments get widespread media attention, but so did what had until that point been his sleepy Senate campaign in the Bayou State.

Before the spill, Melancon had gained little traction in his campaign against Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). The one chink in Vitter's armor -- his ties to a 2007 District of Columbia prostitution scandal -- had proven to be far from the political death sentence that Democrats had hoped it would be. Melancon's campaign seemed stuck in neutral and with vulnerable incumbents clamoring for help in an increasingly toxic national environment for Democrats, the Louisiana race simply didn't look like a great investment for the national party.

After the spill, Melancon's campaign seemed re-energized. He attacked BP PLC, the oil giant whose crude had fouled the Gulf, so often that it became hard to distinguish whether Melancon was running against Vitter or the oil company.

Melancon ran three commercials devoted to the disaster and fallout and spent a large chunk of the $4 million he raised to ensure that the Gulf spill played a larger role in the 2010 Louisiana Senate contest than in any other race in the midterm elections.

But despite the spilled oil, the tears and plenty of references to the D.C. Madam, Melancon went on to get blown out by 19 points on Election Day.

In a recent interview, the former three-term congressman, who now works as a senior vice president at a national lobbying shop that represents fast food restaurants and other franchises, said he has no regrets about the way he ran what he said was his last political campaign.

"I never took on BP. My campaign was about David Vitter and his ineffectiveness," Melancon said. "I ran the race that I thought was the race of the conscience of the people."

But "Louisiana obviously doesn't feel that it needs a better senator," he said. "It is what it is."

Tethered to Obama, Pelosi

Melancon blames his loss last fall on a lot of things, but oil spill politics is not one of them.

The former co-chairman of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats said that at the outset of his campaign the race was not about his national party, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or President Obama.

But as time went on, he said, Vitter's tactic was to make the campaign "all about who I'm not" so that issues regarding the coast and rebuilding in the wake of the spill and multiple devastating hurricanes took a back seat, Melancon said.

The national Democratic Party, Pelosi and Obama "were made the premise for most of the races that you saw where Democrats got beat. And mine was no exception," Melancon said.

He recalled a run-in with one woman who said she would not be voting for him simply because she said she saw a picture of him shaking hands with Obama.

And pointing to what was eventually a 3-to-1 fundraising advantage for Vitter, Melancon said that "with enough money you can tell any story you want."

But for a period of time in the late spring and early summer of 2010, Melancon was telling a story that seemed to gain traction with the news media and Louisiana voters. It wasn't about the bank bailout (which he voted for) or the health care bill (which he opposed) but about workers in Houma and his hometown of Napoleonville. In the spill Melancon found a way to be a Louisianan first and Democrat second, which was exactly what he needed to be if he was going to escape the attempts to tie him to his more controversial party leaders.

Melancon also went on the attack, and not just against BP. When Vitter initially proposed a plan to cap BP's liability, Melancon pounced, calling it a "taxpayer bailout" for the company.

Even some Republican strategists now privately concede that the attack hurt Vitter.

"I didn't want to run BP out of business ... because of the fear that the people that were damaged may not have a source to be made whole again," Melancon said last week.

But he felt that a liability cap -- especially one of just a couple hundred million dollars -- would shortchange the people on the coast.

"If you're going to play in a place where companies have the ability to post billions of dollars of profits a quarter, then why should there be a limit?" he said.

Less than three weeks after Melancon's tearful committee appearance, Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina firm with a stable of Democratic clients, released a survey that showed Melancon trailing Vitter by 9 points. That was 9 points better than the 18-point lead that Vitter showed in a survey taken the week of the spill by Southern Media and Opinion Research, which was funded by wealthy conservative businessman Lane Grigsby.

Spill politics shifted

But Melancon could not maintain momentum. After the PPP survey, Melancon's internal polls were the only ones to ever again show the race within single digits. A Clarus research poll conducted for a Louisiana television station showed Vitter with dozen-point leads in both August and late October.

Vitter spokesman Joel DiGrado offered a simple explanation for why Melancon's attacks failed.

"Charlie had a problem with bailouts, so he tried to make David Vitter the face of this evil corporate entity BP," DiGrado said. "But while Charlie was trying to look like he was not a Democrat and not with BP, he forgot that David Vitter lives on the coast, too."

And then there was the fact that the politics of the oil spill shifted rather quickly in Louisiana from the response efforts to the moratorium on drilling imposed by the Obama administration last May.

"Even though he took the right position [by opposing the moratorium] he still was tied to the president who enacted that moratorium," DiGrado said.

Longtime Louisiana political writer John Maginnis generally agreed with that assessment.

"You can say Melancon ran on the oil spill, but Vitter did, too," Maginnis said. When it came to his stance as the anti-BP candidate, "you know he wasn't alone. Everyone down here was doing that so that didn't stand out."

As for the boost Melancon got on the issue of liability caps, Maginnis said Vitter deflected that attack by quickly putting out another bill that would have set an unlimited cap for BP.

"Melancon was up against too much in that election," Maginnis said. "National politics, especially, and the anti-Obama feeling, and Vitter very effectively tied Melancon to Obama."

Bernie Pinsonat, who runs Southern Media & Opinion Research, said Melancon simply could not survive Obama's drilling moratorium.

"We have a petroleum gene down here -- we just love the oil and gas industry and the economy it provides," Pinsonat said. "Melancon was calling for more drilling, but of course no matter how many times he said that, Vitter pointed out that your party isn't letting people go back to work."

'People are allowed to make mistakes'

Today, Melancon said he is at peace with being out of politics. The 63-year-old, who also spent six years in the state Legislature, said he plans to work until he is 70 but tries to get back to Louisiana as much as possible to spend time along his beloved Gulf Coast.

"I'm heading towards, as people say, the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Melancon has little desire to get into the political debates that are currently raging on Capitol Hill, but he did weigh in on Republican efforts to reduce rules and regulations that they believe are holding back the growth of businesses like those in the oil and gas industry.

"There's a fine line between regulation and deregulation and it's trying to find that balance so we can have oil and gas production," he said. "We want as best we can an expedited process for inspections to move those rigs back to work, but we don't want to take away the authority and the power to make sure what happened on April 20 doesn't happen again."

And despite his sharp criticism of BP during his campaign -- he once said the company's leadership doesn't "give a damn" about Louisiana -- Melancon doesn't seem to be holding to that animosity today. In fact he said he would be OK with BP returning to deepwater drilling in the Gulf. A permit application submitted by BP to the Department of Interior is currently under review.

"If BP is going to play by the rules ... then they can go back and drill," he said. "In life, people are allowed to make mistakes. ... Whether there was negligence will be proved out in the court."