NEW ORLEANS — Foster Campbell evokes the era of Louisiana’s Democratic populists when he describes John N. Kennedy, his Republican opponent in the state’s Senate election on Saturday.
“If people want somebody who is phony, a flip-flopper and has been on every side and has been everything but a Baptist preacher, they need to vote for John Kennedy,” Campbell, a 69-year-old elected utility regulator, drawls in one throwback line.
“I don’t wear a thousand-dollar suit to walk down a gravel road. He does,” Campbell says in another that refers to a recent Kennedy campaign ad.
“It’s like you close your eyes, and you’re listening to Huey Long ridicule his opponents with a one-liner that put them in their place,” said Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University professor, referring to the assassinated former governor, one of the most colorful politicians in the history of Louisiana.
But Louisiana’s Democratic populist period has long passed, and that helps explain why Kennedy, the state treasurer, is the heavy favorite to win the Dec. 10 election for the U.S. Senate — the last in the country thanks to the state’s unique election laws. With President-elect Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton, and with Congress remaining in GOP hands, it is shaping up as one final humiliation for Democrats.
Here in Louisiana, Republicans now control the state legislature and hold all statewide elective offices except for the governorship, which John Bel Edwards won in an upset last year over U.S. Sen. David Vitter (R). Dogged by a prostitution scandal, Vitter chose not to seek reelection to the Senate this year.
That opened the door to Kennedy, who in the primary paced a 24-candidate field, defeating Republican U.S. Reps. John Fleming and Charles W. Boustany Jr., and David Duke (R), the onetime Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who 25 years ago served a term in the Louisiana House.
Kennedy has worked for state government during 25 of the past 29 years — he was elected treasurer in 1999 — but is running as an anti-Washington outsider with a few good lines of his own.
“I believe in more freedom, not more free stuff,” he says.
“I believe love is the answer, but own a handgun just in case,” he adds.
“The swamp in Washington, D.C., has to be drained,” he said in a recent TV ad. “I can help. After all, we know a thing or two about swamps in Louisiana.”
Kennedy has been a fervent supporter of Trump’s. In a recent ad, Kennedy says the Affordable Care Act “sucks” and promises to seek its repeal.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence visited New Orleans last weekend to fire up Republican voters for Kennedy. And on Friday, Trump is headlining a get-out-the-vote effort for Kennedy at the Dow Chemical Hangar at the Baton Rouge airport.
“We have one more race to win this year, right here in your great state,” Pence told several hundred cheering supporters. “We need one more push.”
Democrats throughout the country have rallied behind Campbell for the same reason.
“We have one more chance to get one more senator to stand up to Trump’s xenophobic agenda,” said Kate Gould, a staff member at a nonprofit organization in Washington who has worked with Idealists 4 Hillary and others to organize phone banks for Campbell. “For everyone who wants to put roadblocks on the Trump agenda, getting another senator will be crucial for that.”
Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau, former aides to President Obama, interviewed Campbell last week on their podcast, “Keepin’ It 1600.”
Buoyed by Democrats nationally, Campbell outraised Kennedy in the most recent reporting period, $2.5 million to $1.6 million.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, however, has played virtually no role in the election — a request for comment went unanswered — while the National Republican Senatorial Committee has opened 10 field offices across the state. A Kennedy victory would give Republicans a 52 to 48 advantage in the Senate.
“Not everyone is always happy to go with the leadership,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), who chairs the Republican committee. “So 52 gives you a bit of a cushion.”
A Kennedy defeat, he added, “would be a bucket of cold water in the face on the heels of a great victory for Mr. Trump.”
The only independent poll released in recent days showed Kennedy with a comfortable advantage of 52 percent to 38 percent.
Kennedy, 65, has given Campbell plenty of ammunition to attack his authenticity. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law and Oxford University, and he is a former corporate attorney who has become increasingly folksy, particularly after becoming a Republican in 2007.
Kennedy first ran for the Senate in 2004 as a Democrat in a race won by Vitter. Kennedy endorsed Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate that year, and was quoted in a profile as acknowledging that he had previously been in favor of abortion rights — a position he now says he never held.
Kennedy’s past comments prompted Defend Louisiana, a pro-Campbell super PAC, to air an ad attacking him from the right on abortion. The ad alleges that Kennedy supported abortion from 1988 to 2004 and, as viewers hear a beating heart, posts the number 22,581,040 on the screen.
“That’s how many children were aborted during John Kennedy’s career as a pro-choice politician,” the announcer says, citing figures from National Right to Life.
Nonetheless, that antiabortion group has endorsed Kennedy, who is running as an economic and social conservative who wants to cut taxes, build Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border and won’t say whether he thinks human activity has caused climate change.
Campbell had a long antiabortion record in the state Senate and even voted in 1991 for a bill that outlawed abortion in all instances. As treasurer, Kennedy has never voted on an abortion bill but scored 100 percent on National Right to Life’s questionnaire, while Campbell declined to fill it out.
“In all of our communications, he has made the pro-life commitment across the board,” said Benjamin Clapper, the Louisiana director for the National Right to Life Victory Fund.
The National Rifle Association has endorsed Kennedy, even though Campbell, a cattle farmer and insurance agency owner, has a collection of antique guns and ends one ad by firing a shotgun.
Kennedy made a name for himself as a fiscal watchdog in Louisiana by railing against the spending practices of Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, her Republican successor. He has won few friends among elected officials.
“John spends a lot of time criticizing other people,” said Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who was defeated when she sought a fourth U.S. Senate term in 2014. “At the end of the day, you want people who build things, not just tear them down.”
For years, Kennedy has pushed unsuccessfully to get the governor and the legislature to sharply reduce state contracts, citing deals that he says exemplify government run amok. Kennedy, for example, has ridiculed a $1.5 million contract for giving massages to Swedish rabbits, although the Advocate newspaper reported that doctors have applied what researchers learned to help the recovery of soldiers badly wounded in war.
“John is very good at identifying hot-button issues and using them for his political advantage. I give him credit for that,” said Jay Dardenne, a veteran Republican elected official who is now Edwards’s top budget official.