Tuesday night's Alliance for Good Government U.S. Senate forum in New Orleans was just about everything you'd expect from a gathering that tried to accommodate all 24 candidates; it was long, unwieldy, but also intermittently revealing.
Not everyone showed up. U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and Treasurer John Kennedy sent surrogates to speak on their behalf, but questions were reserved for the candidates themselves, and there were still enough of those to fill two consecutive panels. A few of the highlights:
1) The alliance has chapters in New Orleans and its surrounding suburbs, and a couple of candidates who hail from other parts of the state — and who have accents to show it — did their best to cozy up to the locals. Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a populist Democrat from Bossier City who's hoping to tap into the city's large Democratic electorate, introduced himself by reminiscing about his days in the Louisiana Legislature.
"I don't ever remember voting against the New Orleans delegation," he said. "I've always tried to help."
Troy Hebert, a political independent from Jeanerette, said New Orleanians may well remember him from his stint at the state's alcohol and tobacco control commissioner. There are "a lot of thirsty people" in the area, he slyly noted.
Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a Mandeville Republican attempting to run on Donald Trump's coattails, even tried to make some sort of connection. He cast himself as a local boy who had a paper route, before pivoting to his predictable rant about how immigration policy amounts to the purposeful ethnic cleansing of America.
2) The stage was crowded with political unknowns, but even some of the experienced candidates had trouble finding their bearings.
Asked about two federal programs he'd target as a U.S. senator, Campbell zeroed in on corporate tax breaks that don't produce a bang for the buck. But when the questioner asked him to name two such federal programs, he offered instead to identify state-level giveaways he'd eliminate. "I haven't gone through the federal budget," Campbell finally admitted.
Hebert, who jokingly referred to Campbell's flub as a Rick Perry moment, didn't do much better when asked his thoughts on whether the GOP-led Senate should hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Hebert made an impassioned speech against Washington's paralyzing partisanship — but never answered the question.
Now that qualifying for the fall races is over, Louisiana finally has an official U.S. Senate race.
The most sure-footed candidate in the first group, it turned out, was New Orleans lawyer Caroline Fayard, a Democrat who has never held government office. In arguing that the Senate should consider the Garland nomination, she cited its duty to advise and consent, and said doing so would amount to an endorsement of the Scalia's strict constitutionalism. She also named two specific tax provisions she'd fight to change, including the much-criticized carried-interest loophole that benefits some of the nation's richest investors.
The night ended just as well for Fayard, who snagged the group's endorsement.
3) The evening's second panel featured the crowded race's two well-known tea party-inspired Republicans. The interesting thing here was that retired Col. Rob Maness actually made U.S. Rep. John Fleming of Minden, a leader of the House's absolutist Freedom Caucus, sound relatively moderate in tone, if not in platform.
This group was asked whether income inequality is a major problem, and Maness called widespread concern over the trend "a mountain out of a molehill." Fleming argued that the gap is in fact the worst in decades, but said the best government solution is the conservative standby of cutting taxes and regulations.
Maness, of Madisonville, labeled the widely accepted idea that human behavior has led to climate change "a hoax," while Fleming said only that there's still a lot of debate. But Fleming argued against major government efforts to address the problem, insisting that it's "ridiculous" to "try to micro-mange human behavior by using our laws."
The most crowd-pleasing line on the topic, though, came from a little-known Democrat out of South Lettsworth named Pete Williams. Clearly referencing Duke, a member of the earlier panel, Williams said that "global warming is real. And if the other guy were here, I'd say global warming thawed him out."