Gov. John Bel Edwards’ efforts to clear the field and line Democratic support behind one candidate in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race mirrors the successful strategy he used to become governor.
He’s hoping the myriad of Republican candidates — at least five GOP contenders are competing for the Senate seat — will so deeply wound each other ahead of the November primary election that it could boost the chances for a Democrat to win.
It worked for Edwards.
The blistering attacks lodged by Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne against their fellow GOP candidate, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, damaged Vitter before he ever made it into the runoff election against Edwards. In the gubernatorial primary, Vitter and a super PAC supporting him spent months hammering Angelle and Dardenne. In response, Angelle and Dardenne called Vitter an embarrassment to Louisiana, unfit to lead the state.
The criticisms were so harsh that a super PAC supporting Edwards used the words of Vitter’s Republican opponents to hit him in the runoff campaign.
After losing the governor’s race, Vitter decided against running for re-election to his Senate seat, setting up the wide-open race on the November ballot.
But while Republican infighting helped boost Edwards to victory, federal races aren’t the same as state ones, and the dynamics of this Senate race are shaping up to be quite different from the governor’s race.
Plus, none of the Republican candidates in the Senate race have the same type of publicly known baggage that Edwards could use to his advantage in the governor’s race last fall, a 2007 prostitution scandal in which Vitter admitted to a “serious sin” after phone records linked him to Washington’s “D.C. Madam.”
In Louisiana’s unusual open primary system, all candidates regardless of party run on the same ballot against each other. If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff.
Edwards was the lone major Democrat in the governor’s race, winning the early endorsement of the state Democratic Party and successfully consolidating party resources behind him. He escaped most attacks until the runoff because the GOP contenders were hitting each other.
Of course, at the time, conventional wisdom suggested — and political pundits assumed — that a Democrat had little chance of winning the top job in Louisiana since voters hadn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2008. That may have lessened Democratic contenders’ interest in the governor’s race, helping Edwards to coalesce Democrats’ support for him.
Now, Edwards’ victory has encouraged Democrats to think the party can win the Senate seat if they get the right candidate and the right conditions. Three Democrats have announced campaigns so far: Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, New Orleans lawyer Caroline Fayard and Lafayette-area businessman Josh Pellerin.
The Republican candidates include U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany; former U.S. Rep. Joseph Cao; U.S. Rep. John Fleming; state Treasurer John Kennedy; and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness.
Fearing Democrats would split their vote, Edwards encouraged the leaders of the Louisiana Democratic Party in a recent speech to unify behind one candidate. Edwards said he’s backing Campbell, a utility regulator from Bossier Parish, though he said he wasn’t telling party leaders whom to support.
But the governor stressed party unity was needed, with Democrats all working toward electing one candidate.
“It is now not just theory or conjecture that we can win races in Louisiana,” Edwards told the state party’s governing body, the Democratic State Central Committee. “But we have to work together.”
GOP candidates say they don’t believe Edwards’ effort to coalesce Democrats behind one candidate — and the threat of Republican infighting in the primary — could hurt a Republican’s chances at victory.
“I’m not concerned about any of that,” Fleming said. “All I’m concerned about is I think I have the right message and the right résumé.”
Kennedy said what happened in the governor’s race doesn’t mean anything about how the Senate competition will go.
“Everybody always tries to run the last race,” Kennedy said. “This is a different race.”
Melinda Deslatte covers Louisiana politics for The Associated Press.