Marguerite Knight Erwin seemed nervous talking about how the Thibodaux Chamber of Commerce, which she chairs, and two other groups came to trim the number of U.S. Senate candidates invited to participate in this week’s forum at Nicholls State University.
It would have been impossible to have a coherent conversation with all 24 candidates, she explained, referring to a prepared statement that outlined the metrics used to pick the four candidates who could participate. Candidates chosen had polled in the double digits by five surveys, only one of which was named.
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Consequently, the forum left out U.S. Rep. John Fleming, a Minden Republican who last week spent more than $1 million to launch a statewide television ad campaign; and Madisonville Republican Rob Maness, the retired Air Force colonel who in 2014 polled 202,556 votes in a third-place finish in the last U.S. Senate contest. And then there’s David Duke, a Mandeville Republican who is not running a traditional campaign, i.e. rousing rallies, baby kissing and festival parades.
The Remington Research Group’s survey, the only poll cited by Thibodaux forum organizers, put Duke at 6 percent. But he, alone among the two dozen candidates, is being courted by a national and international media that seems only nominally interested in who Louisiana sends to the U.S. Senate this fall. The only Senate contender whose name is familiar outside Louisiana is frontrunner John Kennedy and that’s more a coincidence at birth than because the state treasurer’s fiscal policy is so widely known.
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Over the years Duke made occasional appearances on national television. During the past few weeks he has been interviewed by television stations in Italy and Denmark. Channel 2 News in Israel and NHK, the Japanese broadcasting company, have set up interviews, according to his campaign.
Der Spiegel, the venerable German news magazine, is scheduling time, and The Jerusalem Post wants Duke for 15-20 minutes to talk about Donald Trump’s lifelong relationship with the Jewish community.
The one point Duke is sure to punch in these interviews is that the media, which he demonizes even as he exploits, tries to marginalize his viewpoints by ubiquitously tagging him as the ex-Ku Klux Klan leader. Duke argues it was a job he held as young man nearly 40 years ago. He now wants to be known as a protector of the rights of “European Americans” in much the same way the NAACP advocates for African-Americans.
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Duke also says he’s 100 percent behind Donald Trump’s presidential bid. Trump’s campaign repeatedly disavows that support. But Duke continues the narrative that the Republican standard bearer’s adoption of anti-immigration and anti-Muslim stances means Duke’s long espoused views have become mainstream.
"As a United States senator, nobody will be more supportive of his legislative agenda, his Supreme Court agenda, than I will," Duke told National Public Radio in August.
Since strong showings in the early 1990s in races for the U.S. Senate and Louisiana governor, Duke has been convicted of tax evasion and served time in federal prison. He received a Ph.D. (and prefers to be called Dr. Duke) from the Ukraine's Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, based on a thesis entitled, "Zionism as a Form of Ethnic Supremacism."
Noting that his boss refuses to talk to The Advocate, when asked for a comment, Duke’s campaign coordinator Michael Lawrence recycled a quote he had given to The New York Times, which is also working on a story: “Duke has become a narcotic to the media and no Duke news withdrawal symptoms kick in.”
If nothing else, Duke’s entry into the Nov. 8 election to replace retiring U.S. Sen. David Vitter, has re-invigorated his brand.
And that’s the real danger, says retired Tulane University historian Lawrence Powell, who helped reestablish a group from the 1990s — the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism — to oppose Duke’s candidacy.
Powell agrees with Duke on one thing: Trump, whether he meant to or not, has energized a right-leaning populist moment that has pressed many views previously held as extremist into the mainstream of American political debate.
He’s not so worried about Duke actually winning the U.S. Senate seat, though he doesn’t totally put the possibility out of his mind. It’s more than that. What Powell said he really fears is that this “moment” will translate into more school board races and state legislator campaigns focusing on race-tinged ideologies.
“It’s a harbinger of things to come. There are a lot of people out there, a lot more appealing than he is, who are positioning themselves right now,” Powell said.