If this year's U.S. Senate race is giving voters a distinct sense of déjà vu, there's a good reason for that.
It's not only that Louisiana went through another high-stakes statewide contest for a major office just a year ago. It's also that, on some days, the Senate primary is feeling kind of like a rerun of the 2015 gubernatorial contest.
While I was chatting with one of the 24 candidates for Louisiana's open U.S. Senate seat the…
On the Democratic side, that makes a lot of sense. John Bel Edwards' unexpectedly easy victory despite the state's strong Republican leanings was the culmination of plenty of unique circumstances, but it still offers other Democrats something of a road map. And Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, Edwards' endorsed candidate for Senate, is diligently following it.
He faces several obstacles that Edwards didn't, including another well-funded Democratic opponent, Caroline Fayard. That's forced Campbell to run something of a primary-within-a-primary, while Edwards got to sit back, let the Republicans duke it out and prepare for a runoff.
Still, Campbell, like Edwards, is also presenting himself as the economic populist with Louisiana values. He's relying on support from the same traditional Democratic constituencies, such as teacher unions and urban voters. And more than anything, he's overtly grabbing onto the popular governor's coattails, frequently invoking his name and featuring him in a new ad unveiled this week.
The dynamic on the Republican side is a little more complicated.
If Campbell is aiming to be this year's John Bel Edwards, state Treasurer John Kennedy is lifting a page from the failed playbook that U.S. Sen. David Vitter hoped would put him in the governor's mansion, according to a report this weekend by The Advocate's Tyler Bridges.
The outside political action committee supporting state Treasurer John Kennedy for the U.S. …
Kennedy's not being so overt about it, of course. Vitter hasn't endorsed, and Kennedy certainly wouldn't want to tie himself to the outgoing senator's prostitution scandal and any number of traits that prompted voters to look for an alternative.
But with Kennedy facing tough competition from fellow Republicans Charles Boustany and John Fleming for a spot in the December runoff, he's clearly hoping the plan that helped Vitter ward off GOP rivals Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle will work for him as well.
The strategy that Vitter's affiliated Super PAC used, its executive director Joel DiGrado explained at a post-gubernatorial election discussion at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, was to make sure that neither of the other Republicans emerged as the single alternative in voters' minds. So when one seemed to be rising in the polls, the group would target that person for attack.
“Every week, we had to reassess who we’re beating up,” said DiGrado, who likened the exercise to playing “whack-a-mole on a balance beam.”
Kennedy also has an affiliated Super PAC, called ESAFund, It's ostensibly independent even though most of its money came from Kennedy's state campaign fund, and it just so happens to be run by Vitter's former campaign manager, Kyle Ruckert. And it too is running harsh attacks against fellow Republicans, with an obvious eye toward keeping either of Kennedy's main GOP rivals from edging him out or joining him in an all-GOP runoff, when he'd clearly prefer to face a Democrat.
This, of course, is the part of the plan that worked for Vitter. His Super PAC's brutal attacks against Dardenne and Angelle may have kept either from catching up to him at the polls.
But there were consequences. Both declared the ads dishonest and below-the-belt, just as Boustany and Fleming have done in reaction to the ESAFund ads. Neither Dardenne nor Angelle backed Vitter in the runoff, and Edwards' own allies used their anger to great effect in their own ads.
A lot would have to fall into place for that scenario to repeat itself and lead to a Democratic victory in the runoff, and Vitter's strategy did get him to the next step. So Kennedy's attempt to follow in Vitter's footsteps at this point isn't necessarily unwise.
If Kennedy's lucky enough to make it into the runoff, though, he might want to chart his own path. Vitter's gubernatorial strategy may have knocked his GOP rivals down, but it sure didn't build him up in voters' minds. And his runoff collapse isn't something any candidate would want to repeat.