Louisiana Election

Louisiana state treasurer John Kennedy hugs his wife Becky after addressing supporters at his election watch party, after being elected to the senate seat vacated by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

One credible explanation for U.S. Sen. John Kennedy’s decision not to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards for re-election is that he didn’t want to be the next David Vitter.

In other words, he didn’t want to risk losing in a Republican state to a Democrat. And not just any Democrat, but the same Democrat who beat Vitter in 2015 by a whopping 12 points.

In another sense, though, Kennedy is following in Vitter’s footsteps. His Senate predecessor worked in Washington from 1999 until 2016 but still kept a strong hand in state politics, and Kennedy is doing the same.

In his two-plus years in the nation’s capital, the former state treasurer has already established himself as willing and eager to comment on matters in Baton Rouge, particularly when that means picking a fight with Edwards on matters from Medicaid to criminal justice. Vitter used to mix it up back home too, although his target was often a rival Republican, former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was also a frequent Kennedy adversary.

Now comes word that Kennedy is formalizing his state-level involvement, and once again following Vitter’s path.

Kennedy is joining like-minded Attorney General Jeff Landry, another regular Edwards critic, as a leading force in a political action committee that Vitter formed more than 10 years ago.

What was then known as the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority played a major role in helping Republicans win long-sought legislative majorities in both houses of the Louisiana Legislature. It also helped Vitter cement his role as the most powerful Republican in the state by earning him all sorts of chits. Vitter not only raised money for GOP candidates, but also offered strategic advice, and in some cases let Democrats in right-leaning districts know that if they didn’t switch parties, they’d face opposition.

The timing was no accident. As a legislator back in 1995, Vitter had authored the state’s term limits law giving every member three four-year terms. LCRM revved up for the 2007 election, when the law forced many old school members out and created new opportunities.

It’s now a dozen years later, and the Legislature is once again facing large turnover. And with Republican majorities in place, this time the group has a different agenda that’s reflected in a new name.

Landry redubbed the PAC the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority. That's because this time, the goal is not just to elect Republicans, but to establish a level of ideological purity that exists in the House but not in the more moderate — and more Edwards-friendly — Senate, which is facing a 40 percent turnover this fall.

Kennedy’s role, apparently, will focus on fundraising.

“I’m going to be very aggressive in trying to provide the resources to elect good women and men in our state,” Kennedy told The Associated Press. “I’m not afraid to ask for financial support. I think that’s well-known. I’m going to raise as much money as I can.”

Whether he’ll provide the same level of advice and personal support that Vitter did remains to be seen.

The two politicians have some things in common. Vitter was never well-liked among fellow Republicans, dating back to his legislative days, when he revealed a go-it-alone and holier-than-thou streak. But his strategic prowess was revered, right up until it became clear that he had no answer for the upstart Edwards. Kennedy’s not beloved either, particularly after he spent months deliberating before finally taking a pass on a gubernatorial race.

But there are also differences. Vitter’s activity back home could certainly be read as a prelude to his gubernatorial race, which he entered as a clear favorite and the party’s de facto leader.

After Kennedy spent so much time toying with them, it’s unlikely that Republicans will give him another chance four years from now. There’s a new generation of rising GOP figures anyway, including Landry.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of reason for Kennedy to get involved.

For one thing, electing an even more ideological Legislature would cause headaches for Edwards, should he return to the Governor’s Mansion.

And face it, Kennedy loves a good showdown. Imagine how much more he’d love to taunt the governor by proxy.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.