BATON ROUGE, La. — Rep. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana liver doctor who could determine control of the Senate, has crafted a two-step prescription for helping the GOP retake the upper chamber.
First, Cassidy said at a series of events here, Republicans cannot simply treat the midterms as a referendum on Obamacare -- even as his opponent, Sen. Mary Landrieu, and other Democrats scramble to distance themselves from the rocky rollout of the president's signature legislative initiative.
Second, Cassidy stressed the importance of rejecting liberal charges that Republicans serve only corporations and the country-club crowd.
During a series of interviews with the Washington Examiner in Louisiana and Washington, the 56-year-old gastroenterologist dared Democrats to frame him as out of touch on health issues, having spent the past two-and-a-half decades providing medical care to the uninsured.
“If somebody thinks I don’t care about the uninsured, they can join me at my clinic on Tuesday morning where I still teach medical residents and treat the uninsured,” he said. “Or they can go to a board meeting of the free clinic I set up for the working uninsured.”
Cassidy doesn't hesitate to rake Landrieu over the coals for backing Obamacare but, unlike more firebrand Republicans, he speaks in a decidedly softer tone on an issue that GOP leaders predict will flip the six seats that will give them control of the Senate.
“We as conservatives need to step up as individuals and do what we can to answer society’s needs,” he said at a school-choice fair in Louisiana, reaching out to voters who are traditionally wary of Republicans.
“We have to do a better job expressing the moral high ground of our positions,” Cassidy added.
It's a strategy that has received traction of late from conservative Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who say the party must improve its standing with the working poor to avoid a repeat of the 2012 elections.
Leaders of the GOP "establishment," along with their strategists and fundraisers, see Cassidy as the kind of candidate who can close the so-called empathy gap that has plagued Republican candidates in recent elections.
Cassidy was raised in Baton Rouge and attended Louisiana State University for college and medical school. He met his wife Laura, a former breast cancer surgeon, while they were both medical residents.
The three-term congressman launched his political career in the state senate, a bid he says was fueled by his experience converting an abandoned Kmart into a makeshift hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
For her part, Laura Cassidy founded a charter school for kids with dyslexia — like their daughter Kate, one of three children.
It’s a brand of compassionate conservatism that presents a new challenge for Landrieu, who has shown an uncanny ability to survive in an increasingly red state, analysts in Louisiana say.
“It’s difficult for Mary to say he’s another rich, out-of-touch guy — he won’t seem to have horns on his head,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Louisiana pollster who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats.
“Her last two elections, she had weak opponents,” Pinsonat added. “This time is different. The state is different.”
Landrieu is the lone Democrat left in statewide office in Louisiana -- a state Mitt Romney carried by 17 points in 2012. Still, Landrieu has unparalleled name recognition around the Big Easy. Her brother Mitch is mayor of New Orleans, as was her father, Moon, who also served as President Jimmy Carter's secretary of housing and urban development.
“Everyone knows who Landrieu is,” said a worker at a new methanol production plant where Cassidy toured wearing a hard hat and goggles.
When asked about the leading Republican candidate, the man replied, “Cassidy? I don’t know a Bill Cassidy.”
The congressman stood a mere 10 yards away.
Under Louisiana’s unique open primary system, a runoff between the top two vote getters is triggered if no candidate receives a majority of support in November.
In other words, there’s a plausible scenario in which the Landrieu-Cassidy slugfest stretches out until Dec. 6, with control of the Senate hanging in the balance. In that event, political pros expect an avalanche of spending, media attention and frequent flier miles for Washington’s heavy hitters.
Republicans are banking that Cassidy’s medical experience will put him over the top in a state that has little sympathy for Obamacare.
“It’s real world versus academic theories,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., an orthopedic surgeon.
“Obamacare was developed by those who never had any sense of what it meant to take care of a patient,” Price said. “Bill is somebody who understands it from a gut level — it’s an incredible advantage.”
Cassidy is easily the best-funded Republican candidate, with more than $4 million in cash on hand, but he has faced questions about his ability to unite the party.
The Senate Conservatives Fund has endorsed retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, the Tea Party candidate. Cassidy also took flak from the Right for pushing a bill that would delay an increase in flood insurance premiums.
The Louisiana congressman was removed last month from the GOP whip team after bucking the party leadership on flood insurance, a move that Cassidy wears as a badge of honor in a state where such legislation has overwhelming Republican and Democratic support.
“My big sin has been that I support reforming a flood insurance program, as opposed to just letting it hit,” he said.
“That’s not conservative to just say, ‘Oh, we don’t care,’ to allow a program to implode with all the debt that accumulates to the federal government,” he said. “That’s not conservative, that’s poorly thought-out policy.”
With Cassidy and Landrieu singing out of the same hymnal on flood insurance, Obamacare is likely to play a far larger role in the race.
Although Landrieu has called for a delay in the individual mandate and championed a “fix” for cancelled health policies, she has also hammered Cassidy for not endorsing Medicaid expansion in the state. Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, has been one of the most vocal critics of that Obamacare provision, warning it would eat into the state budget.
For their part, Democrats contend that Cassidy is using his personal biography to mask policies that hurt a high proportion of Louisianans who lack access to medical coverage.
“Bill Cassidy can peddle his stale talking points until he’s blue in the face,” said Andrew Zucker, a spokesman for the Louisiana Democratic Party. “His plan for health care is to prevent 250,000 people in Louisiana from having access to health insurance.”
Zucker called Cassidy a hypocrite, pointing to a bill he introduced in 2007 as a state senator that would have created a health-care exchange run by the state. The bill never became law.
Cassidy bristles at the comparison, saying his proposal was voluntary and did not require a fine for noncompliance like Obamacare. But Democrats have vowed to continually highlight “Cassidycare,” accusing the congressman of trying to gloss over his past to appease staunch conservatives.
Traveling 20 miles from Baton Rouge for one more public event before a fundraiser, Cassidy walked a delicate tightrope as he told a roomful of seniors that reforming entitlement programs was actually good for them. It’s the right moral decision, he argued.
“The Medicare and Social Security trust funds go bankrupt in like eight to 12 years," he said at a retirement community in Gonzales. “You get a 23 percent decrease in the amount of money you receive from Social Security. That’s by law.”
“Is that true?” an elderly woman asked a friend in the audience.
"He's a doctor," her companion replied confidently. "He knows what he's talking about."