“When you get kicked in the rear, it usually means you’re out front,” Treasurer John Kennedy said during Tuesday night's U.S. Senate debate, the season's first televised showdown between the major candidates to replace retiring U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
Polls suggest that Kennedy no longer has an undisputed hold on first place as the election approaches, but he's still the only statewide official in the 24-candidate field and the best-known name in the mix. So it's no surprise that his rivals, particularly the two other Republicans on the stage, spent much of the debate trying to knock him down and showing voters that they have other choices.
In fact, one of the interesting dynamics of the Louisiana Public Broadcasting/Council for a Better Louisiana debate was the palpable friction among Kennedy and U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming, his two biggest competitors on the GOP side. The takeaway wasn't so much that Kennedy sits in the catbird seat but that it's getting to be do or die time for all three of them.
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Kennedy stuck to his go-to move of bashing all of Washington, including the Republican Congress where Boustany and Fleming work, which he insists has rolled over for President Barack Obama (Obama would surely beg to differ). At one point he read down a list of often silly-sounding Congressional appropriations, citing them as examples of government waste.
Fleming, who awkwardly referred to himself several times as the "trusted conservative" — probably better to let others say they trust you than to say so yourself — pounded Kennedy for having backed John Kerry for president when the treasurer was still a Democrat. He also hit Boustany, who pitched himself as a conservative who gets stuff done, for being perhaps too willing to compromise.
But it was Boustany who helped Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell land the biggest blow, with a ham-handed assist from Kennedy himself. During the portion of the program in which each candidate asked another a question, Campbell asked Boustany whether Kennedy should apologize for making light of suicide by frequently quipping that he'd "rather drink weed killer" than support any number of supposedly liberal ideas. Boustany jumped right in and seconded the notion, calling mental health a serious issue.
Kennedy's best hope to defuse a suddenly tense situation would have been some show of contrition. He could have said he never intended to offend anyone and quietly decided to remove the line from his repertoire. Instead, he doubled down, responding that “I’d rather drink weed killer than answer that.” It landed with a thud.
As notable as the three-way Republican fight was the fact that the two Democrats who participated, Campbell and lawyer Caroline Fayard, largely refrained from infighting even though they've been attacking one another on the airwaves for weeks now.
Each pitched his or her background as a plus, with Campbell extolling his long record as a populist politician, and Fayard playing up her supposed outsider status, even as she at one point indirectly promised to put her family's ties to possible President Hillary Clinton to use for Louisiana.
Fayard also said she'd support Clinton's candidacy, while Campbell, who's trying to position himself as a Louisiana Democrat rather than a national one, avoided saying her name when asked. He only said he'd back his party's nominee.
Advocate reporter Tyler Bridges suggested that he did so because he's looking ahead to a runoff against a Republican, and that's probably true. But Campbell's still vying for the primary support of 40-or-so percent of voters who are hard-core Democrats, so it may not be a good idea to distance himself quite so openly. Nor did it makes sense for him to suggest that he'd use abortion as a litmus test when deciding whether to support a Supreme Court nominee. Nobody expects a Louisiana candidate to be pro-choice — and indeed, none of the candidates who participated are— but by naming that as his first criterion, he hinted that he may not back a Clinton nominee based only on that issue.
That's not a losing position overall in the state, but it may well be among some of the Democrats Campbell hopes will choose him over Fayard. He probably didn't pick up any votes with that answer, but I wouldn't be surprised if he lost a few.