Louisiana’s everyone-in-the-pool primary system definitely has its charms. But as the state gears up for this fall’s U.S. Senate election, its quirky way of choosing candidates is turning the election less into a contest of ideas and more into a multicandidate muddle.
A new poll by Southern Media & Opinion Research conducted for Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby pegs Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy as the contest’s clear front-runner, followed at some distance by his many rivals for the seat that U.S. Sen. David Vitter soon will vacate.
The survey of 500 likely voters, taken May 19-23, put Kennedy at 32 percent, followed by U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany with 10 percent, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell at 9 percent, U.S. Rep. John Fleming at 5 percent, retired Col. Rob Maness at 4 percent, attorney Caroline Fayard at 4 percent, former Alcohol and Tobacco Control Commissioner Troy Hebert at 2 percent and Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta at 1 percent.
That’s just a snapshot in time, nearly six months before Election Day and well before most voters are likely to tune in. But the real question is how the race will play out if and when they do.
If Louisiana had party primaries, it’s easy to guess what would be happening.
On the Democratic side, we’d be seeing an intriguing head-to-head contest between Campbell and Fayard, who represent distinct wings of the party.
Campbell is hoping to replicate the success of his most famous supporter, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a fellow rural populist. Fayard is more of a Mary Landrieu type. She’s aiming to tap into a more cosmopolitan base and gearing much of her campaign toward appealing to women. She also has strong family ties to the state’s well-heeled trial lawyer community.
And both would be trying to make inroads with a major Democratic constituency that is natural to neither: the state’s many black voters. The poll suggests this group is up for grabs, with 42 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of black voters undecided.
On the Republican side, we’d be seeing more of a primary within a primary.
Maness and Fleming both hail from the tea party wing of the party and are busy battling it out over matters such as who’s the tougher critic of former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who resigned following an insurrection by the House Freedom Caucus, of which Fleming is a prominent member.
In what you could call the mainstream wing of the party field, the major candidates are Boustany and Kennedy.
Neither is talking like an insider these days, of course, which is no surprise given the voters’ generally anti-establishment mood. Boustany was an ally of Boehner’s, but his public rhetoric focuses heavily on criticism of President Barack Obama, with an emphasis on the president’s health care plan and the administration’s oversight of the Internal Revenue Service.
Kennedy has been in public life for decades and has run for Senate twice before, once as a Democrat and once as a Republican, yet he’s cultivated a reputation as a vocal critic of his fellow politicians. These days, he tends to aim his rhetoric squarely at Edwards and lawmakers who are busy grappling with the state’s daunting budget crisis. His insistence that the shortfall can be fixed by cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse has irritated many who have to take tough votes on raising taxes and cutting services, but it sure seems to play well outside the State Capitol.
Things all would be clearer if the Democrats could choose their standard-bearer and the Republicans pick theirs. But with everyone appearing on the same ballot, the lines are blurry. And more than anything, that’s looking like good news for Kennedy.
He could, for instance, pick up some Democratic votes despite his hard-edged criticism of Edwards and a recent penchant for rhetorically questioning recipients of public assistance. He’s a familiar figure in the media, where he’s generally portrayed as a watchdog. Plus, Democrats may back him out of old habit or perhaps even react to that name.
He’s got a profile that’s much higher than any of his competitors; the poll gave him a 62 percent approval rating, which is 30 points or more than any of his rivals. Fifty-two percent of Democrats view him favorably, the poll found, as do 82 percent of Republicans.
So unless something pretty drastic changes, it’s hard to envision Kennedy not claiming one of the two runoff spots. That leaves all those other Republicans, plus Campbell, Fayard and the independent Hebert, having to simultaneously try to knock Kennedy off his high perch and aim their fire on one another.
It all has the makings for a real dogfight, with Kennedy, so far, holding the title of top dog.