MORGAN CITY — Caroline Fayard threw plastic red beads while Congressman Charles Boustany tossed orange go-cups.
Only two of the 24 candidates running for the open U.S. Senate seat rode Sunday in the parade during the 81st annual Shrimp and Petroleum Festival in Morgan City – a perennial stop on the festival circuit – and the low number seemed appropriate in a desultory race that has yet to engage the public, only two months before the Nov. 8 primary.
“I would guess that nine out of 10 people couldn’t name more than one candidate if you waved $100 in their face,” said Bob Mann, who handled the press for Democratic campaigns during six statewide races and is now a historian, political columnist and LSU communications professor.
An informal survey of festival-goers bore out Mann.
“I don’t even know who’s running, to be honest with you,” said Patrick Arabie, who works for a local commercial diving company, just before recommending that a reporter try a sandwich with fried catfish topped by potato salad, at a nearby food booth. (It would have been better with a loaf of Leidenheimer and not white bread.)
Thousands of people roamed the food booths by Lawrence Park and underneath U.S. Highway 90 on a hot and humid day where shorts, sandals and sunglasses predominated. One booth did a brisk business selling t-shirts with the festival’s icon — a shrimp wrapped around an oil derrick. The event takes its name from the two most important industries for Morgan City, which is in an economic slump because of low oil prices.
Another parade-goer, a middle school band director named Geddy Bienvenue, could identify only Boustany. “That’s all I know,” he said. “They’re not on TV. They’re not exposed.”
That seems about to change, if statewide races in the electronic age don’t truly get underway until the candidates are advertising on television.
U.S. Rep. John Fleming is about to begin airing ads, a spokesman confirmed, while Fayard and state Treasurer John Kennedy are expected to start their spots any day. Both men are Republicans; Fayard is a Democrat.
Boustany is the only candidate broadcasting television ads at this point, in south Louisiana. He, too, is a Republican.
“Louisiana never quits, and I’ll never quit fighting for you,” Boustany says after shots of the recent flooding in one of the two spots has has running.
The calendar also suggests that the race will begin in earnest.
“Labor Day is the game-on day,” said Roy Fletcher, a veteran media consultant in Baton Rouge who does not have a candidate in the race. “It’s the mark.”
Woody Jenkins, who narrowly lost the Senate race 20 years ago and remains a conservative political leader in the Baton Rouge area, said the flooding there has distracted voters from the race.
“The capitol has been taken out of politics,” Jenkins said.
With so many candidates, polls are showing that no candidate will get more than 50 percent of the vote on Nov. 8. That means the top two finishers in the primary – regardless of party – will face off in a runoff a month later.
Given the large number of candidates, political insiders divide the primary into four mini-primaries.
One mini-primary pits Kennedy and Boustany to be the mainstream conservative candidate. Kennedy has the advantage at this point, leading the entire field in all the polls. He has the advantage of having run statewide seven times, more than all of the other candidates combined. An attorney who grew up in Zachary, he has carved out a reputation as a fiscal watchdog in Baton Rouge.
“I try not to worry about the competition,” responded Kennedy Sunday when asked about the likelihood of attack ads from Boustany aiming to pull him down.
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On his website, Boustany, a heart surgeon from Lafayette who represents Acadiana, says he presents “a proven conservative record of accomplishments, common-sense solutions and honest leadership.”
The emphasis on “accomplishments” is meant to distinguish him from Fleming, who represents northern Louisiana in Washington and favors a more confrontational brand of conservatism.
Fleming, a physician and businessman who owns several dozen Subway shops, was a founder of the Freedom Caucus, which played a key role in forcing Speaker John Boehner to resign last year for being too willing to negotiate with Democrats.
“The Democratic Party has moved so far to the left that it’s fully aligned with socialism,” Fleming told the Press Club of Baton Rouge earlier this year.
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In what could be seen as the second mini-primary, Fleming is competing for the ultra-conservative vote with Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel who finished a distant third in the 2014 Senate race and is touting his national security credentials.
A third candidate appealing for the hard right vote is David Duke, who jumped into the race and immediately proclaimed his fealty to the anti-immigrant and anti-establishment message of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate.
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The best known political figure from Louisiana nationally, Duke served a term in the state House representing Metairie and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990 and governor in 1991 in races where he won about 55 percent of the white vote each time in losing.
Duke has not lost his ability to attract national and international media – he did an interview with an Israeli TV station rather than come to Morgan City on Sunday – given his past as a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and neo-Nazi sympathizer. But Duke has yet to show that he’ll be anything more than a sideshow, having lost his last three statewide races and served a stint in federal prison after pleading guilty to gambling away money that supporters gave to him for political causes.
A third mini-primary pits Fayard versus Foster Campbell, to be the top Democrat in a race where one Democrat is likely to make the runoff.
Fayard, who lost a 2010 race for lieutenant governor, is a businesswoman who grew up in Denham Springs. The 38-year-old Fayard presents herself as a young, fresh face, and Campbell as a representative of the past.
“Experience matters,” retorted Mary-Patricia Wray, Campbell’s press secretary. “He is the only candidate who has a record of standing up to (then-Gov.) Bobby Jindal and David Vitter.”
Campbell, 69, has held elected office since 1976, representing northwest Louisiana in the state Senate for years before winning a seat on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities. Campbell, who finished fourth in the 2007 governor’s race, is a vanishing breed as a white elected Democrat in northern Louisiana.
He counts on the support of the state’s top Democrat, Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has hosted three fund-raisers for Campbell, in what is a reward for having backed Edwards when he was a long shot candidate with little support.
Fayard and Campbell have been pitching themselves to African-American voters – who make up a majority of Democrats in Louisiana – with ads on urban radio stations.
Fayard went first, beginning on July 11 in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Shreveport, and she added Lake Charles, Alexandria and Monroe on Aug. 8, according to Beau Tidwell, her press secretary. Overall, she has spent $300,000 on her radio ads, Tidwell added.
Campbell’s radio ads feature testimonials from different African-American ministers, depending on the media market: Dr. C.S. Gordon Jr. from New Zion Baptist Church of New Orleans, the Rev. Theron Jackson from Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Shreveport and the Rev. Cardell Speed from Mary Springfield Baptist Church in Converse, among others.
The fourth mini-primary involves the other 17 candidates who are looking to begin to register in polls and find a way to shoot past the better-known candidates into the runoff. They include two former elected officials – Troy Hebert, who served in the state House and Senate from Acadiana, running without party affiliation; and Republican Joseph Cao, who served a term in the U.S. House of Representatives representing New Orleans – and two successful businessmen, Joshua Pellerin, a Democrat, and Abhay Patel, a Republican.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Monday, Sept. 5, to correct that Caroline Fayard ran for lieutenant governor in 2010.