With all the candidates exploring next year’s U.S. Senate contest, the field could wind up being so unwieldy that Louisiana may have to replicate one of the worst innovations of this Republican presidential season: the kids’ table debate.
Yet the more relevant guidepost for next fall’s election to replace retiring U.S. Sen. David Vitter is this year’s gubernatorial contest.
Which is not to say that a Democrat will have a good shot at once again beating the odds, defying recent trends and claiming another major office, as Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards did this year when he trounced Vitter, the early favorite and one of the state’s dominant modern-era Republicans.
In fact, there are many convincing reasons to predict that the Senate contest will play out differently. It will inevitably focus on the national issues, an area where the majority of Louisiana voters side with Republicans, rather than less ideologically divisive state policies. And there will likely be no figure as polarizing on the ballot as Vitter himself, who amassed quite an impressive enemy list over more than two decades in politics.
Still, those ready to take this one to the bank should consider a few numbers.
One is 40, give or take. That’s about the percentage of the vote that a credible Democrat can expect to earn in a typical statewide election, and in fact, it’s just what Edwards did take in the gubernatorial primary.
Another is 10, more or less. That’s how many Republicans are said to be exploring the race. And even if the total winds up being half or even fewer, a crowded GOP field creates the possibility of the sort of ugly intra-party showdown that we saw between Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle this year.
Here’s the challenge for the GOP. If a Democrat can get 40 percent in the open primary, that probably leaves just one runoff spot for a Republican. And if the vote is split 10, five or even three ways, there’s no telling which contestant will finish on top, and how much GOP blood he will have to draw to get there.
That may well not matter, since in a straight Republican-versus-Democrat matchup, the Republican will usually prevail. But as we learned from the governor’s race, there are exceptions, and one is when some large group of right-leaning voters decide that the GOP standard-bearer is unacceptable.
Which brings us to the GOP field as it’s currently evolving.
There’s no reason to think that a relatively moderate, establishment Republican shouldn’t prevail. The problem is that there may be more than one, and that the large crowd could keep a standard-bearer from emerging. U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany announced early and has a strong base in his Cajun country district. But then, so does Angelle, who is considering jumping in as well.
Another big name who could crowd this lane is state Treasurer John Kennedy, who’s sought Senate seats twice before (once as a Republican and once in his earlier incarnation as a Democrat), and who has an active Super PAC. And then there’s former U.S. Rep. Joe Cao, who has a history of winning crossover votes in Democratic New Orleans, as he pointed out in his email telling friends and supporters he’d run.
Over in the party’s more conservative wing, U.S. Rep. John Fleming, a leader of the House’s defiantly anti-compromise Freedom Caucus, has jumped in, and Rob Maness, a tea party favorite, announced he’s exploring a second run. A split among establishment Republicans could create space for one of them to emerge.
And here’s where it could get interesting. What if the two people who emerge from a crowded primary are a Democrat and a more extreme Republican? Where do voters in the center go?
In the governor’s race, of course, they decided Vitter was unacceptable and flocked to Edwards. Would they feel that way about a hardliner like Fleming or Maness, and for a legislative job in Washington as opposed to an administrative one in Baton Rouge?
For that matter, would the Democrat be as attractive an option as Edwards was? A number of candidates are exploring the race, but at first glance none appears to be of Edwards’ caliber. Of course, a year ago, Edwards himself didn’t appear to be an Edwards-caliber candidate.
At this early juncture, the seat remains the Republicans to lose. But if nothing else, this year’s election reminds us that the unexpected can happen. It also shows us just what might play out if it did.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.