By Hastings Wyman –
Louisiana politics surprised the experts last fall when Democrat John Bel Edwards won the governor’s race in this otherwise heavily Republican state. Now the state’s politicos are preparing for another major race, electing a US Senator to replace David Vitter (R), who lost his gubernatorial bid and will not seek reelection.
The first vote is a “jungle primary” in which all voters, regardless of party affiliation, can vote. It is on Nov. 8, the same day as the presidential election. If no candidate receives more than 50%, and that would be unlikely, a runoff between the top two, regardless of party, will be on Dec. 10. The filing deadline for candidates is July 22.
The seat is likely to stay in Republican hands, but that’s not a done deal. “The outcome of the election last year,” says Democratic consultant Trey Ourso, “is that it is possible for Democrats to win in Louisiana. John Bel Edwards was a pretty good candidate. David Vitter was a flawed candidate.”
To win, the Democrats would have to “carbon-copy” the factors that led to Edward’s victory last fall, says Joshua Stockley, political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. These include a moderate-to-conservative Democrat in the runoff, bitterly divided Republicans, and a seriously flawed GOP candidate in the runoff. Plus, adds Stockley, “They would have to catch all the breaks.”
For now, “The race is very spirited, very competitive,” says Stockley, among the top three Republicans, US Rep. Charles Boustany, US Rep. John Fleming and state Treasurer John Kennedy.
Boustany (R), 59, is a popular congressman from the 3rd District (Lake Charles to Lafayette). He is also a physician. In recent polling, Boustany had high favorables and he has $1.5 million in his House campaign account, which he can use in his Senate race. Moreover, he is a member of the House Ways & Means Committee and chairman of its Tax Policy Subcommittee, so he is in a good position to raise more money.
Fleming (R), 66, is also a physician, and a businessman. He represents the 4th District (Shreveport, etc.) in the Northwestern part of the state. He is considered more conservative than Boustany, although each claims to be the more conservative. Fleming is a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, a group on the right of the House GOP. His war chest at $2.3 million, for now, is flusher than Boustany’s.
Kennedy (R), 64, has several major advantages. He had the highest favorability rating and the best name ID in a recent poll. He also has the most money, $3 million. He cannot access the money directly for a campaign for federal office, but he may be able move it into a super PAC. Kennedy was the most supportive of Vitter in last year’s governor’s race, which might help him somewhat. He is “probably considered the most moderate,”
says Stockley, “but his recent rhetoric has moved to the right.” On the downside, as a recent convert to the party, Kennedy is not popular with the Republican establishment. He has run for the Senate twice before, first as a Democrat, then as a Republican.
Not in the top three, but a factor nevertheless, is retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness. “He is a wild card,” says Stockley. “He’s the grassroots Tea Party candidate.” He has also received the endorsement of Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser (R), who Maness backed in his race for lieutenant governor. In the 2014 Senate primary, Maness won 14% of the vote. Even if he stays in fourth place among the GOPers, he could influence the outcome by siphoning votes away from Fleming.
Former US Rep. Joseph Cao (R), who is Vietnamese and served one term in the House, has also announced.
In a presidential year, Republicans should benefit from a heavy conservative turnout, especially if Bernie Sanders should win the nomination. And Hillary Clinton is not much more popular, given her opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.
On the Democratic side, one candidate has announced and several others are considering the race.
Caroline Fayard, 37, a New Orleans lawyer who is close to the Clintons, is a graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Michigan Law School. She grew up in Livingston County, near Baton Rouge. She lost a 2010 special election for lieutenant governor, but gained some name ID in the process. Her father, Calvin Fayard, is a prominent Democrat. She describes herself as “pro-life, pro-business Democrat.”
Two other Democrats are pondering a race for the Senate. Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell “is from the old guard of the Louisiana Democratic Party…” says Stockley. “He came up during the John Edwards/John Breaux era.” While Campbell has not announced, he has put a poll in the field.
Jacques Roy is the third-term mayor of Alexandra and a conservative Democrat. “A lot of people like him,” says Stockley, noting that Roy is known for brokering between Democrats and Republicans. While he is not well known, he “has energy and enthusiasm and would attract moderates and conservatives.”
Other Democrats who get mentioned as potential candidates, some of whom have shown some interest, include third-term state Rep. Robert Johnson; state Sen. Eric LaFleur; state Sen. Gary Smith; Lafayette businessman Joshua Pellerin; newspaper and gambling magnate John Georges; former CEO of the Shaw Group and former state Democratic chair Jim Bernhardt; and. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) has said he will not run and is not expected to change his mind.
“It’s an open primary,” notes Ourso. “A moderate-to-conservative Democrat against a far-right Republican could make it competitive.” A Republican insider says that if a
“significant Democrat” runs, he would finish first, but a Republican would win the runoff. He adds, “Maybe an African American state legislator will run. He could get in first place” in the first vote, but would likely lose in the runoff. African Americans account for 30% of the state’s population.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, chairwoman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, in an interview with The Town Talk, said that she hoped the Democrats would get behind one candidate. Given the level of interest of potential democratic candidates, that may be difficult.
In addition to Republicans and Democrats, Troy Hebert, who heads the state’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commission, says he is going to run as an independent. Although he is a registered Democrat and served in the state senate as a Democrat, he is leaning toward Trump for president.