This year’s sprawling U.S. Senate field can be divided into distinct, if sometimes overlapping, subsets. There are the incumbent congressmen, the establishment Republicans, the conservative insurgents and a host of upstarts and wannabes — or in a few cases, has-beens — who hope to break through the clutter.
But so far, the most distinct contest within a contest is between the two Democrats who have managed to make a dent in the polls. Sure, Republicans are favored to hold outgoing U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s seat, given Louisiana’s overall party leanings. But in any given race, about 40 percent of voters, give or take, usually choose a Democrat.
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If either Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell or lawyer Caroline Fayard were the sole well-known, well-funded Democrat, either would easily land in the runoff. The fact that they are competing for that same vote, in a 24-candidate race in which the difference between second and third or fourth may be minuscule, means that neither could. So it’s do or die time for both.
On paper, the two candidates represent different wings of the party. Campbell, of Bossier Parish, is an old-school Louisiana rural populist hoping to follow in the successful wake of Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has endorsed him. Fayard, a New Orleans lawyer with roots in Livingston Parish, is running more of a Mary Landrieu-type campaign, and has focused heavily on women’s issues such as pay equity. Landrieu's brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, endorsed Fayard Monday.
The divide is represented in their staffs, with some operatives who helped Edwards get elected now on Campbell’s team and some of the former senator’s aides helping Fayard. And it shows up in at least one issue area: like Edwards, Campbell is backed by the state's major teacher union, while Fayard has the support of a prominent pro-charter school group for which Mary Landrieu is an advisory board member.
The two differ on the importance of experience, too. Fayard, 38, who has never held office, sees hope in the general anti-incumbent mood.
“People are really looking for something different and fresh. They've had it the Bobby Jindal way. They've had it the Barack Obama way. They've just had it,” she said recently. "I think there is a sentiment, sweeping the country, that feels that frankly both parties are broken. It’s not Democrats are better than Republicans or Republicans are better than Democrats, it's just that parties have generally failed people” on issues such as keeping young people from being crushed by student debt.
Campbell, 69, is no fresh face, having served in the Legislature and the Public Service Commission so long that he’s already been inducted into the state’s political hall of fame.
“I’m the only Democrat with a record,” he said. "Experience is good. It lets you help people without a big learning curve."
That record, he said, involves taking on more special interests than anyone in Louisiana, including big oil and gas, his focus when he ran for governor in 2007. This year he’s talking about closing the revolving door that lets lawmakers quickly cash in as lobbyists once they leave Congress.
Both candidates point to the fact that they outperformed Democrats at the top of the ticket in previous races, when Fayard ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 and when Campbell got some 50,000 more votes than Landrieu in his northwest Louisiana PSC district in 2014.
But both know perfectly well where the bulk of Democratic votes are and are aiming their efforts there. Fayard has sought to position herself as the fiercest critic of former Klan leader David Duke, a Republican candidate in the large field. A PAC supporting Campbell has an ad out criticizing Fayard’s relatives, who have close ties to the Clinton family, for contributing to John McCain and Sarah Palin over Barack Obama in 2008 after his bruising primary against Hillary Clinton.
This year it’s Fayard who’s embracing the national ticket, focusing on issues before Congress, vowing to put her connections to Clinton to work for Louisiana voters and even making the case that, come the December runoff, conservative voters might want to opt for Democrat if the Senate switches hands in November.
“Do you want to be on the table or on the menu?” she asked.
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Campbell, meanwhile, recently declined to tell Advocate reporter Tyler Bridges which presidential candidate he backs.
“This race is about Louisiana,” he said. “Talking about Hillary Clinton distracts people.”
That doesn’t mean he’s running away from all national Democrats, though. If Fayard sees hope in the desire for fresh faces, Campbell can relate to another old populist hand who had a breakthrough year.
“This is the year to let Foster be Foster,” Campbell quoted his own pollster as saying during a recent interview. “I've been doing what Bernie Sanders has been doing for years."