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Louisiana cooks up spicy Senate race -- with side of alligator

By Gloria Borger and Brian Rokus, Kevin Bohn, CNN
updated 1:01 PM EDT, Sat November 1, 2014
  • Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu is in a tough reelection battle for her seat
  • Landrieu's Republican opponent is U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy
  • There's also another Republcian candidate Rob Maness who's getting 11% of the vote
  • The race will likely go to a runoff in December

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) -- Under almost any circumstance, Louisiana politics are hot and spicy.

The race for the Senate seat this year plays to type, and then some: It's an almost guaranteed runoff, to be decided in December. So the answer to the question of who controls the Senate could actually have to wait for Louisiana voters to figure it out.

The stakes are high, yet the contest is a combination of Louisiana dynasty (as in incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose wobble dance this month is a viral hit) vs. three term Republican congressman Bill Cassidy (a physician who has focused his message on President Barack Obama's record) vs. conservative tea party candidate Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel (running with the Sarah Palin seal of approval).

Republicans are fuming at Maness, calling him a spoiler because they believe their candidate could have gotten half of the vote if he had disappeared from the race. He didn't, and he won't.

We asked him about the accuracy of the term "spoiler" to describe his bid, and he was having none of it. "Absolutely not," he responded. "There is no taking votes away from so-and-so...people will go out and vote for who they believe, can best serve us here in Louisiana."

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And so he remains very much in the race.

A USA Today/Suffolk University Poll this week showed Landrieu and Cassidy almost neck and neck, at 36% - 35%. Maness, meantime, is at 11%. So the top two finishers will face off in a run-off on Dec. 6.

"We call it a jungle primary system because we just let all the candidates get into one room, so to speak, and just go at it and see who makes the runoff," said Jeremy Alford, publisher of

Democrats and Republicans are already into the runoff mode, with more than $10 million reserved on TV for the next phase. Expect that to grow if, in fact, control of the Senate comes down to Louisiana.

But Louisiana might not be the only cliffhanger. In Georgia, a libertarian could force the Senate race there to a run-off in January -- a month later than Louisiana's December date.

As for Maness, he's not letting the establishment talk him out of anything.

"The party, it's about power, you know," Maness told CNN. "Well, the back room got together and decided that so and so's gonna be the guy or gal." He said he's gotten calls urging him not to run -- which he resisted.

His campaign got a splash — literally — as he "wrestled" an alligator, sort of. He does that in an ad in which he said "Here in Louisiana you learn to be tough. One moment of weakness, and the alligators can eat you alive... Louisiana needs a senator that will stand up to the career politicians and the alligators."

"Some said it was a stunt. But it was a very good way to communicate effectively visually with the people of Louisiana," Maness told CNN in an interview. It did get him noticed, and Sarah Palin has been to La. several times to campaign for him and help raise money.

In Louisiana — which is also hosting the comeback campaign of ex Gov Edwin Edwards, a Democrat, now running for a House seat, and Republican Rep. Vance McAllister, an incumbent running for re-election after being caught on a surveillance camera kissing a married female staffer — the Senate race is par for the course.

And maybe even a little bland. At least according to Isaac Toups, owner and chef of the New Orleans restaurant Toups' Meatery whose family has been in Louisiana for five generations.

"You can fly your freak flag here in New Orleans. You can be a lot more can have a purple Mohawk and have your teeth painted black and someone next to you is gonna be twice as crazy" Toups said as he prepared some Cajun fare. "In north Louisiana, it can be very conservative, and that's the way they roll...our politics are lively and unique."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Rob Maness' first name and party affiliation. He is a Republican.

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