While I was chatting with one of the 24 candidates for Louisiana's open U.S. Senate seat the other day, he wondered aloud over the relatively low-key atmosphere surrounding what is an undeniably important election.
I get his frustration. There've been plenty of news stories about the candidates, and television ads have been running for weeks now. But somehow, something's still missing. For want of a better word, let's call it "buzz."
The question, and surely not just from this candidate's point of view, is why.
Here's my theory. With less than a month to go before voters will likely narrow the field to two in anticipation of a December runoff, the election has no distinct storyline. Its main plot is that it's plotless.
Compare the contest to Louisiana's two previous Senate races. Both featured do-or-die survival fights for well-known incumbents. In 2014, the burning question was whether Democrat Mary Landrieu could survive in a Republican state (the answer was no). In 2010, it was whether voters would stick with Republican David Vitter despite his prostitution scandal (the answer was yes, at least temporarily). Both contests also hinged on sharp ideological distinctions between the candidates, so they stood in as non-presidential year referenda on national politics — and on President Barack Obama — as well.
This year, though, we've got an epic, if dispiriting, presidential contest to absorb voters' partisan energy and satisfy their thirst for political drama. We've got a Senate field devoid of any politicians who loom as large as either Landrieu or Vitter, with the possible exception of the universally-condemned white nationalist David Duke. And we've got a muddle, with five candidates — state Treasurer John Kennedy, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, lawyer Caroline Fayard and U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming — credibly vying for the two runoff spots.
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And compare Louisiana's race to contests in other states where seats are up for grabs. Most of the other contested elections at this point feature a Democrat versus a Republican. That means voters are hearing a clash of policy priorities, and it also means they feel like they're a part of the bigger contest over which party will control the Senate. High stakes partisan showdowns attract outside money too, so the airwaves in those states are saturated with ads.
Here, the general expectation is that the seat will stay in Republican hands, so there's no visible partisan hook.
In fact, the race has basically broken down on its own into two virtual party primaries. Campbell and Fayard are both trying to woo Democratic voters, in part by fighting over which of them is the truer Democrat. Kennedy, Boustany and Fleming are focusing on grabbing their share of Republican votes, sniping over personal or marginal political differences even as they largely embrace the standard GOP platform.
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Also striking is the extent to which the candidates are still introducing themselves. Each has a distinct image he or she is working to project. To hear them tell it, Campbell is the populist with a history of looking out for the little guy, Fayard is the fresh face who's never been part of a broken system, Boustany is the experienced hand who knows how to get results in Congress, Fleming is the true conservative, and Kennedy is the folksy truth teller.
A more typical dynamic could develop in the runoff, particularly if a Republican and a Democrat face off in December, and definitely if overall control of the Senate is still undecided.
And it's worth remembering that anything can happen in an open primary system. Given the large field, two Democrats or two Republicans could make the runoff, which would be a dramatic, if unlikely, development. And as we learned in last year's governor's race, Louisiana's overall Republican leanings don't preclude a Democratic victory if everything falls exactly into place.
So there's still time for Louisiana's Senate race to develop a plot, and find an interested audience. Unfortunately for the candidates still trying to break through at this late date, most of them will have joined the voters on the sidelines by then.