SENATE FORUM

Pictured from left to right are U.S. Senatorial candidates, John Fleming, John Neely Kennedy, Caroline Fayard, Foster Campbell and Charles Boustany Jr. during a forum at the campus of Louisiana Tech University on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY LOUISIANA TECH UNIVERSITY

As the blistering battle for an open U.S. Senate seat entered the final stretch before the Nov. 8 primary, Democrat Caroline Fayard took aim at fellow Democrat Foster Campbell with a television ad that some political pundits have called "scummy" and "ugly."

The ad uses audio of an otherwise throwaway line Campbell uttered about tax exemptions in an attempt to link Campbell to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a Republican who also is in the race.

Fayard has stood by the ad, which features a grainy audio clip of Campbell uttering the words "I may be like Mr. Duke," but without the rest of the quote, which makes clear it's in reference only to the number of examples he could name regarding a question about taxes and not in reference to racism, anti-Semitism or other objectionable views associated with Duke.

"Campbell and Duke, the past," the ad's narrator says, before identifying Fayard as "our future." 

It's clear that Campbell has taken the ad personally, and it is likely to leave harsh feelings between the two Democrats for a long time.

"It's all going to backfire, and then she's going to have to wallow in that for a long time," Campbell said. "This is about race baiting, trying to upset some people. I've been helping people for years. Where has she been?"

Fayard lost the backing of the New Orleans-area Alliance for Good Government over that particular ad because the audio came from a forum where recordings were not allowed. The group gave her the choice: Pull the ad or lose the endorsement. She picked the ad and doubled down on its contents.

"He can’t even say Hillary Clinton’s name on camera. He has refused to support President Obama," Fayard said Friday about Campbell. "His passive avoidance is a softer version of what David Duke does overtly."

Martin Johnson, an LSU professor of political communication, said it's pretty typical for elections to veer negative in the final stretch of a campaign. Early voting is underway and ends Tuesday.

"These kinds of contrast and negative ads are very common and certainly common as you get closer to election day," Johnson said.

Campaign finance records show that millions have been spent on negative ads in the race already, and they appear to be ramping up, though no others have been quite as harsh as Fayard's against Campbell.

There are two dozen candidates on the ballot for this year's Senate race. Campbell and Fayard have emerged as the leading Democrats, while state Treasurer John Kennedy and U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming have the lead on the Republican side.

The top two candidates, regardless of party affiliation, will go to a Dec. 10 runoff, if no single contender wins a majority of the vote.

Johnson said the influx of negative ads is coming as people begin to pay more attention to the election. The Senate race, overshadowed by a volatile presidential election and somewhat muffled under the weight of the large field of candidates, has largely skated under the radar for several months.

"Because audiences have negative biases, it gets people's attention," Johnson said of negative ads. "They start really paying attention."

"These things maybe reinforce each other as we enter the home stretch," he said.

Johnson noted that one of the ads in the Senate race that has generated the most buzz this cycle is one from Boustany that takes aim at Kennedy.

The ad, which stars a pug dog named Meatball that dons several costumes, claims Kennedy is a "publicity hound."

"It's a cute ad," Johnson said. "And you can't go wrong with a pug, in terms of getting people's attention."

All five major candidates have found themselves on the giving and receiving end of negative ads this cycle.

The Louisiana Prosperity Fund, a pro-Boustany political action committee, has spent nearly $300,000 on advertising against Kennedy in the past week.

In the past two weeks, the pro-Kennedy ESAFund PAC has spent more than $660,000 on advertising against Fleming and nearly $700,000 on ads against Boustany.

The Better Louisiana PAC, which is backing Fleming, reported spending $125,000 against Kennedy this week. Late last month, Fleming released a double whammy ad that took aim at both Kennedy and Boustany, accusing them of a “junior high food fight” after they traded barbs.

Meanwhile, Fayard has complained that Campbell's ads against her have been unfair.

In one TV spot, Campbell's campaign attempts to link Fayard to the national banking crisis of 2008 because she worked at Goldman Sachs for two years in her early 20s after graduating from college. The ad says she "can't be trusted" because of her connections to Wall Street during a time when Goldman Sachs analysts were found to have intentionally misled investors. Fayard brought up the ad during a recent interview with The Advocate.

She said she wasn't happy working on Wall Street, so she left.

"I learned their values did not match up with my values," she said. "If I was a greedy person, then I would still be there, but I am not."

Campbell said he thought the ad was fair because it was factual. "Anything we've said, we have documented it," he said. "I wouldn't let anybody put something out there that isn't documented."

Johnson, the political science professor, said the effort to link a Democrat to a well-known figure like Duke who is intrinsically associated with widely unpopular views is an understandable strategy.

"It's a particularly big shot, but it remains to be seen whether or not voters will find it credible," he said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards notably deployed a stinging negative ad in the final stretch of last year's gubernatorial runoff against Republican David Vitter. The ad, which claimed that Vitter had picked "prostitutes over patriots" because he missed a 2001 U.S. House vote honoring soldiers who had died in action but a short time later took a call from "D.C. Madam" Deborah Palfrey, drew national attention.

Vitter had been seen as the front-runner in the race, while Democrat Edwards was considered a long shot in a conservative state. Edwards went on to win with 56 percent of the votes.

"Candidates need to introduce themselves and make voters more familiar with them and their backgrounds, but they also want to make sure that voters understand how they are different from and, in their view, better than their opponents," Johnson said. "That often leads to negative ads."

Johnson said that while many people claim to dislike negative ads, the ads can contain information that's important for voters.

"It's easy not to like them, but they do often have more policy content in them," he said. "You're often talking about a record and policy and behavior."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.