David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, avowed white nationalist and half-term state rep who came distressingly close to becoming Louisiana's governor a quarter century ago, is back, this time as a candidate for U.S. Senate.
So here's the question: Does it matter?
Duke's surprise entry into the crowded contest this summer caused a stir on the national front, but plenty of political veterans in Louisiana greeted the news with a yawn. Duke's a has-been, the theory goes, a guy who hasn't been a ballot box threat in 25 years, and who in the interim went to federal prison for defrauding his own loyal supporters and gambling away their contributions. He's a fringe candidate, a Republican whose own party rejects him, competing in a large field stacked with more socially acceptable conservatives. His poll numbers are dreadful. Why, they ask, give him the oxygen he so clearly craves?
Larry Powell doesn't see it that way.
Fearing that people were underestimating David Duke’s candidacy for the U.S. Senate, a 25-ye…
The retired Tulane University historian, a key player in the drive to prevent Duke from winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1990 and the state's governorship in 1991, sees too many similarities between then and now to brush off Duke's chances.
So he and some allies, chiefly political consultants Karen Carvin and Deno Seder, have reactivated their old political action committee, the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, and are hoping to raise enough money to run an anti-Duke ad campaign, just as they did in 1991. Among those who've signed on: Former Govs. Edwin Edwards, Duke's Democratic runoff opponent that year, and Buddy Roemer, the Republican incumbent who failed to make it out of the primary. Also on board are big-name Democrats such as former U.S. Sens. John Breaux and J. Bennett Johnston, Duke's opponent in that 1990 Senate race, along with Republicans such as Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and former Mississippi U.S. Sen. Trent Lott.
Duke's re-emergence owes much to the stunning success of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose own resentment-tinged take-our-country-back rhetoric has turned Duke and his ilk into avid fans.
As a Senate candidate, Duke's making a blatant play to ride Trump's coattails, and is notorious enough that his cheerleading — including his recent robocall to Louisiana voters suggesting that they're basically running as a ticket — has been pointedly noted by Hillary Clinton's campaign and disavowed by Trump's. He argues that Trump's success, built on a campaign that has tapped into economic anxiety and identity politics, suggests his time has finally come.
Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, ex-state representative, avowed anti-Semite and convicted …
In an interview, Powell declined to get into any overlap with Trump, other than to note that some of the people who are supporting his effort back Trump for president. But he echoed Duke's general take on the times.
Powell said he didn't worry much when Duke ran for U.S. Senate in 1996 and Congress in 1999, even though he finished fourth out of 15 candidates with 12 percent of the vote in the Senate primary, and came in third out of nine with 19 percent in the Congressional primary for the 1st District.
But "this is different," Powell said. When he looks across the country, he sees a landscape that's somewhat like Louisiana in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the oil bust created widespread economic dislocation.
"There's so much right-leaning populism, so much anti-establishment anger. You have all the right kind of political factors in place for this kind of candidate to make a successful appeal," he said. Powell likened nativist politics like Duke's— and Trump's — to a "low grade fever that, depending on circumstances, flares up."
Of course, Powell reads the polls just like everyone else in politics does, and gets that they don't show any sign of growth. He understands that any ads the group manages to run will inevitably give Duke publicity, but says it's worth the risk.
Duke always under-polls, he noted, and with 24 candidates on the ballot, there is a scenario where he could sneak into a runoff — or perhaps finish, say, fourth, and even that would be a black eye for Louisiana. His main aim, Powell said, is for those who reject Duke to avoid getting caught with their pants down.
"Quite frankly I don't view him as a political problem but a moral one, and I do think that as a historian, and as a Louisianan, we need to make a statement," he said. "I want there to be a record. I want it to be known that people are willing to mobilize and make a collective statement … that this is not Louisiana."