Kennedy and Campbell

John Kennedy (left) and Foster Campbell

Though considered a toss-up for weeks, when the votes were counted Tuesday night, the U.S. Senate race narrowed to the two candidates predicted from the very beginning: Republican state Treasurer John N. Kennedy and Democratic Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell.

Kennedy, 64, and Campbell, 69, will meet in the winner-take-all runoff on Dec. 10 to decide who replaces retiring Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican.

The 24 candidates for the Senate seat ran as outsiders – claiming they weren’t tainted by the political establishment. All but a handful of the aspirants had little or no previous government experience. But Louisiana voters didn't go along with that argument and ended up choosing the two candidates with longest résumés in the race. Campbell and Kennedy have two-thirds of a century of government service between them.

Kennedy gave a victory speech about 10 p.m. before his opponent in the runoff was announced.

Just as he did during his two debate performances, Kennedy borrowed heavily from his television commercial scripts, repeating that "You can't fix stupid, but you can vote it out."

Campbell said Kennedy has “been on all sides of all issues.” He gave a populist speech saying Louisiana needs a senator to help the state prosper. “You haven't had politicians who will stand up for the people down here,” he told a crowd in Baton Rouge.

All evening, Campbell and Republican Congressman Charles Boustany were within a few hundreds votes of winning the second spot in the runoff. Campbell pulled away when votes of the last 80 precincts were counted.

Boustany addressed backers in Lafayette shortly before 11 p.m.

"Obviously we fell just a little bit short tonight,” he said. "It was a tough campaign."

Boustany told backers he is unsure of his future plans. He wished Kennedy and Campbell well in their runoff.

Angling for this Senate race — particularly among the Republican candidates, Kennedy, Boustany and U.S. Rep. John Fleming — began in late 2014 when Vitter started organizing a run for governor.

On the Democratic side, no well-known, major candidate was talking about joining the race until Gov. John Bel Edwards upset the accepted partisan thinking to become the only Democratic governor elected in the Deep South.

Campbell, of Bossier Parish, jumped in with Edwards' blessing and the help of some his campaign staffers. He faced fellow Democrat Caroline Fayard, a 38-year-old lawyer who had the backing of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his sister, former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. She ran as an outsider arguing that people wanted to see new leadership.

After 26 years in the state Senate, Campbell was elected in 2003 to the utility regulating Public Service Commission and has won that seat three times in a north Louisiana district that has almost a million Republican-leaning residents.

Campbell is the only major candidate in the race who has backed Edwards’ plan to sue oil and gas companies, arguing they must pay to help restore a coast eroded by their exploration and drilling activities. He also backs accepting federal grants to help pay for installing high-speed internet in rural parishes, equal pay for men and women, and increasing the minimum wage.

Kennedy was a New Orleans bond attorney before joining Gov. Buddy Roemer’s administration in 1988. He went on to serve as secretary for the Department of Revenue in the late 1990s under Republican Gov. Mike Foster.

After winning five statewide elections for treasurer, Kennedy began his third U.S. Senate bid as the best-known candidate in the field of 24. Though few polls were fielded, he was at the top of all of them.

For his third Senate bid, Kennedy is receiving substantial help from members of Vitter’s team. He transferred a substantial state campaign war chest — law prohibits the use of money raised for a state office in a federal campaign — to the ESAFund PAC, which spent nearly $2 million producing blistering commercials against Boustany and Fleming.

A Democrat until 2007, Kennedy embraced the Republican platform for this race and opposes the federal health care law, treaties that expand trade with other countries, and appointing anyone to the U.S. Supreme Court whose political views are not in line with the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

An 11-year veteran in the U.S. House, Boustany sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and chairs a subcommittee that oversees tax policies. He ran as a conservative who could get things done.

A majority of Louisiana voters told pollsters they preferred a senator willing to stick by political principles rather than compromise.

That sentiment is right in Fleming’s wheelhouse.

He’s a founder of the House Freedom Caucus in 2015, a group of conservative congressmen who engineered the removal of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner for having compromised too much with the Democrats.

Fleming has depended on a base of conservative Protestants and tea party activists — a segment of the voters he had to share with Rob Maness, of Madisonville.

Maness ran in 2014 to unseat three-term incumbent Mary Landrieu, energizing conservative Republicans and placing third with 202,556 votes in the primary. He then backed Republican Bill Cassidy, who won the runoff.

But his 2016 effort never caught on with the voters. Maness, a survivor of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, focused on national security, which polls have shown is one the main concerns among voters this year.

The media took lumps for trying to winnow out some of the two dozen candidates to have a more focused discussion on the issues.

Council for a Better Louisiana and WLPB-TV set criteria for the Oct. 18 debate, the first televised statewide, at having at least 5 percent support among voters and raising at least $1 million.

That put five candidates on the list. A group of those who weren’t invited, led by Troy Hebert, of Baton Rouge, filed a lawsuit. Hebert, who has no party affiliation, is a former state legislator and headed the state alcohol control agency under Gov. Bobby Jindal. He argued that the criteria were arbitrary and aimed at minimizing the candidacies of those who aren't millionaires.

Abhay Patel, a Republican New Orleans business consultant, suspended his campaign after not being invited to the debate.

Raycom Media, which owns or manages television stations in Louisiana’s largest cities, attracted a different kind of criticism when its poll qualified David Duke, a white supremacist.

Walter Kimbrough, the head of DillardUniversity, the historically black college that hosted the Raycom debate, tweeted that he thought the poll was rigged to qualify Duke, a Republican from Mandeville, and attract ratings. Kimbrough pointed out that none of the other independent polls taken after the Raycom survey scored Duke as high as 3 percent.

Respected political prognosticators, such as Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight and the Cook Political Report, all say Louisiana’s new senator likely will be a Republican.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.