Republican John Kennedy won a seat in the U.S. Senate in a lopsided victory Saturday, finally clinching the office he'd unsuccessfully sought twice before.
He defeated Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, his Democratic runoff opponent, by what unofficial tallies indicated was a more than a 20 percent margin.
“For those of you who didn’t vote for me, I want to be your senator too,” Kennedy said in his victory speech at the Embassy Suites hotel in Baton Rouge. Despite differences that were underscored in the campaign, the people of Louisiana share a lot more, he said.
“To a bear, we all taste like chicken,” he said with a chuckle.
As state treasurer for the past 16 years, Kennedy took a traditionally reserved role of Louisiana’s banker and turned into an outspoken critic about how leaders from both parties handled state government’s budget.
The 65-year-old entered the race — his third try for the Senate — as the presumptive leader. Though others in the field of 24 candidates got close from time to time, Kennedy stayed in front throughout the race.
Kennedy has made a career of railing against elected officials, and they were mostly scarce Saturday night at his crowded victory party in Baton Rouge. The most prominent elected official was U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who chose not to seek re-election, clearing the way for Kennedy to run and win the race.
Campbell congratulated Kennedy from an event in downtown Baton Rouge.
"I hope he’ll work hard for the people of our state. We need it," he told supporters.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who made television commercials supporting Campbell, congratulated Kennedy on the early evening win.
“I look forward to working with him to secure additional funding for flood relief, to make long-term investments in our infrastructure and to bring Louisiana’s federal tax dollars home to help our people,” he said.
Despite attracting international attention over unsourced allegations that linked one candidate to slain prostitutes and the comeback bid of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Louisiana’s yearlong Senate campaign never fully engaged voters.
Attention was diverted by a series of catastrophic events: a police shooting of a black man in Baton Rouge, followed by massive protests, followed by the slayings of three law enforcement officers, followed by historic flooding that left thousands homeless.
Since the Nov. 8 primary, the usually loquacious Kennedy kept a low profile: making few appearances, refusing debates and limiting access. Donald Trump flew into Baton Rouge Friday for a rally that featured the president-elect squeezing Kennedy’s shoulders and telling voters he needed the candidate in Washington.
In the nation’s final race to complete the makeup of the U.S. Senate to be seated in 2017, Kennedy’s addition gives the upper chamber 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats. In January, Louisiana’s seasoned senator in the seniority-bound Senate will be Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge Republican entering his third year.
Kennedy and Campbell are similar, though both scoff at the comparisons. Kennedy called Campbell a liberal “in the pocket of Hillary Clinton.” Campbell said Kennedy “flip-flops on core beliefs” to win supporters.
Both candidates embraced many of the doctrines of their respective political parties. Kennedy 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.
But Kennedy and Campbell also are longtime policy wonks elected to tediously technical but essential government bureaus. Both are socially conservative, church-going Protestants who like to hunt and lean on homespun phrases to explain complex concepts.
Campbell spent the afternoon going door to door to try to encourage voters to support him. President Barack Obama recorded a robocall that urged voters to head to the polls Saturday for Campbell.
Kennedy entered the campaign with about $2 million raised for state offices that he legally couldn’t use to run for a federal office. Eventually, Kennedy donated the money to a conservative Washington, D.C., super political action committee called the ESAFund, which is run by one of Vitter’s former top aides.
ESAFund endorsed Kennedy’s candidacy and ran negative attack ads first against his top Republican opponents in the primary — Congressmen Charles Boustany, of Lafayette, and John Fleming, of Mansfield — and then against Campbell.
Kennedy’s campaign commercials focused on him and rarely alluded to opponents.
Kennedy grew up in the Baton Rouge suburb of Zachary, where he was co-valedictorian of his 1969 graduating class.
He got his undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University, and earned a law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law and an advanced legal degree from Oxford University in England.
He planned on a career practicing law and teaching at Tulane University when he met then-Congressman Buddy Roemer, who was running for governor in 1987.
Kennedy became a top adviser and aide, shepherding through the Legislature and the courts many of the plans Roemer tried as he attempted to overcome a fiscal crisis. Those policies and others, such as legislation easing restrictions on abortions and efforts to reduce or do away with the homestead exemption, haunted Kennedy throughout the 2016 campaign.
In his first bid for elective office, Kennedy used the work he had done for Roemer — helping settle higher education desegregation litigation and campaign finance reform efforts — to underscore his credentials. But in that 1991 race, Kennedy finished third behind Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Richard Ieyoub.
Gov. Mike Foster called Kennedy back into politics to serve as his secretary for the Department of Revenue. In 1999, Kennedy left that post to run for state treasurer.
Kennedy and his wife Becky, also an attorney, have a 20-year-old son Preston attending college, and they live in Madisonville, a roughly one-hour daily commute to his wife's law office in New Orleans and to his office in the State Capitol.
First Assistant State Treasurer Ron Henson will take over as treasurer once Kennedy leaves. If Kennedy resigns before Dec. 14, an election could be held as early as March to select a successor.
Kennedy will hold the seat until 2022 that was first filled by Allan B. Magruder in 1812, succeeding historical luminaries such as John Slidell, Edward Douglass White, Russell B. Long and John Breaux.
Kennedy also is the second Republican in a row to win the job. No Democrat, in fact, has been elected to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana since 2008, when incumbent Mary Landrieu defeated Kennedy with 52 percent of the vote. And he’ll replace Vitter, who in 2004 walloped Kennedy, then a Democratic supporter of John Kerry and backed by former, now imprisoned, Congressman Bill Jefferson, of New Orleans.
In 2007, Kennedy switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP. Bobby Jindal, then at the height of his popularity, recorded a television commercial for Kennedy’s second Senate run, saying the state treasurer would provide a “fresh start” in Washington as he had in Baton Rouge.
But in the 2008 Senate election, voters cast ballots for the GOP presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, and then switched back to vote for the Democrat Landrieu rather than Republican Kennedy.
"The biggest thing I learned is tenacity," Kennedy said recently about his takeaway from that election. "In politics, being defeated is a temporary condition. Giving up is permanent."
He then was appointed to the Commission on Streamlining Government — a blue-ribbon advisory panel looking to make state government more efficient. He used that job as a bully pulpit for his fiscal reform ideas, such as reducing the number of state employees, cutting contracts with private companies and overturning laws that dedicate taxpayer dollars to specific spending programs.
Kennedy stormed the state, visiting editorial boards, addressing civic groups, allowing easy access to reporters and visiting talk radio. He was the first prominent Republican to criticize Jindal's budgeting policies, saying the gimmicks were politically based and undermined the long-term stability of Louisiana’s finances — a narrative now adopted by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Jindal was not the first governor with whom Kennedy picked a fight. Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, and Foster, a Republican who brought Kennedy back into public life, both were targeted.
“Some politicians call me a troublemaker, a misfit, a rebel, a square peg in a round hole because I’m not part of the club. I think I make the right people mad. My job is to protect taxpayers, not seek the approval of my political peers,” Kennedy said when he officially announced his candidacy.
Kennedy identified the anger and frustration of voters during this election cycle. He said he understood why Trump’s message and style resonated with voters. Falling back on one of the stock phrases of his campaign, Kennedy said in a recent interview that voters were “inflamed” by people at the bottom getting handouts, while supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, are vexed by people at the top getting bailouts.
“People don’t trust their leaders anymore, whether they’re conservatives or liberals,” Kennedy said.