Louisiana Treasurer asks Bobby Jindal to slow down, wait on Big Charity Hospital sale _lowres

State Treasurer John N. Kennedy

The outside political action committee supporting state Treasurer John Kennedy for the U.S. Senate is fiercely attacking his Republican rivals in the primary, with the goal of knocking them out to put Kennedy in the runoff against a Democrat.

The script by the pro-Kennedy super PAC should sound familiar to voters because it replicates the strategy employed by Sen. David Vitter and his political allies during last year’s governor’s race.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Kyle Ruckert, who served as Vitter’s campaign manager, is running the pro-Kennedy super PAC, ESAFund.

The super PAC has been airing negative TV ads hitting Kennedy’s top two Republican opponents, U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and U.S. Rep. John Fleming. Spokesman for both the Boustany and Fleming campaigns call the ads “misleading” and “false” and say they are airing because Kennedy has dropped in polls.

“I believe that Kennedy hopes to push down Boustany and Fleming to the point that neither makes the runoff so he can face a Democrat,” said Verne Kennedy, a Florida-based pollster who surveyed the race two weeks ago for a group of 15 or so Louisiana businessmen. “That’s what Vitter was doing.”

In the 2015 governor’s race, Vitter’s own campaign and the super PAC supporting him savagely attacked the other two Republican candidates, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and then-Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.

The ads helped give Vitter the result he wanted. Angelle and Dardenne fell short in the primary, leaving Vitter in the runoff against the candidate he wanted, then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

The strategy ultimately backfired as Vitter, weakened from attacks on his character by outside super PACs, Dardenne and Angelle because of a sex scandal, lost badly to the straight-arrow Edwards.

The dynamics are somewhat different in the Senate race because two major Democrats are vying to make the runoff: Public Service Commission member Foster Campbell and New Orleans attorney Caroline Fayard. And the two have begun attacking each other, whereas Edwards emerged nearly unscathed from attacks during last year’s primary.

Either Democrat faces an uphill battle to win the seat that Vitter is vacating. Vitter won re-election in 2010 with 57 percent of the vote, and Bill Cassidy, a Republican, defeated Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu two years ago by a 56 percent to 44 percent margin.

“Louisiana is fundamentally a Republican state,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report, a Washington, D.C.-based outfit that rates the seat as “solidly” Republican.

Verne Kennedy, in his recent poll, found that John Kennedy, no relation, could end up facing Boustany or Fleming in the runoff. To claim a spot, either Fayard or Campbell would have to win about 70 percent of the African-American vote in the primary. If the two split that vote, they could cancel each other out and open the door to an all-Republican runoff.

With less than a month until the Nov. 8 primary, analysts believe Kennedy, Boustany, Fleming, Campbell and Fayard all have a shot at making the two-candidate runoff, which will be held on Dec. 10.

Two other Republicans, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness and white supremacist David Duke, are long shots to make the runoff. In all, 24 candidates are on the primary ballot.

Kennedy, Boustany, Fleming, Campbell and Fayard will appear in the campaign’s first televised debate, Tuesday at 7 p.m., from Louisiana Tech in Ruston. Louisiana Public Broadcasting will air the 90-minute event statewide and stream it on its website.

Under Louisiana’s open primary system, all of the candidates will appear on the same ballot, with the top two advancing to the runoff, regardless of party. Having multiple major candidates in each party means the three Republicans at Tuesday night’s debate — along with touting their own bona fides — will likely attack each other while the two Democrats aim their fire at each other.

Campbell will undoubtedly note that Edwards has endorsed him, while Fayard can point to support from Mary Landrieu and her brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

The pro-Kennedy ESAFund has taken the lead in negative attacks in recent days. The super PAC is directly tied to Kennedy because he provided most of its money through an unusual legal move that allowed him to transfer money from his state campaign to the federal entity. The super PAC is not supposed to coordinate its activities with the Kennedy campaign.

Ruckert, who is running the super PAC, did not respond to phone and text messages.

Last year, Vitter’s own campaign mostly aired positive ads while the allied super PAC hammered Dardenne and Angelle.

The ESAFund is taking a similar approach this year. The Fleming campaign said the super PAC has spent more than $400,000 apiece attacking Fleming and Boustany and another $220,000 promoting Kennedy.

In one spot, a woman watches images of Fleming and Boustany on a giant screen TV and concludes that the two congressmen are Washington insiders getting rich at the expense of taxpayers.

Another spot paints Fleming as a supporter of illegal immigrants by airing a 2008 clip from a candidate forum — a comment that was “deceptively edited,” according to the Fleming campaign, which said its candidate has been a firm opponent of illegal immigration.

A third pro-Kennedy super PAC ad targets Boustany.

The anti-Boustany ad paints him as soft on terrorism and says that one of his “biggest supporters is the CEO of a company that builds weapons for Middle East regimes.” The CEO has an Arab-sounding name, and the company is Morgan City-based Swiftships, which makes vessels for the U.S. government and Middle Eastern governments, according to the company’s website.

Boustany is airing a response ad in which Calvin LeLeux, Swiftships’ chairman, says the pro-Kennedy super PAC is impugning his patriotism. “I’ve switched from John Kennedy, and you should, too,” LeLeux tells viewers.

Pollster Kennedy said Boustany’s popularity has dropped from 4.2 voters rating him favorably for every one negatively in a late August poll, to a 1.8 to 1 ratio in late September.

Over that month, the pro-Kennedy super PAC attacked Boustany, and a new book, "Murder in the Bayou," reported that Boustany had been a client in Jennings of several prostitutes who were murdered in an unsolved series of homicides. The book provided no hard evidence tying Boustany directly to the women, and the congressman has vehemently disputed the allegation.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.