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Democrats Make Long-Shot Effort To Win Louisiana Senate Seat

Vice President-elect Mike Pence campaigns with John Neely Kennedy, the Republican Senate candidate in Louisiana. Kennedy faces Democrat Foster Campbell in a runoff election on Dec. 10.
Ryan Kailath
Vice President-elect Mike Pence campaigns with John Neely Kennedy, the Republican Senate candidate in Louisiana. Kennedy faces Democrat Foster Campbell in a runoff election on Dec. 10.

The last unfinished Senate race of the election is nearly over.

State Treasurer John Neely Kennedy, a Republican, is the clear favorite to become the next Senator from Louisiana, despite an eleventh-hour fundraising surge from his Democratic opponent, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell.

Because of Louisiana's unusual "jungle primary" election laws, none of the 24 candidates vying to replace retiring Senator David Vitter won enough of the vote to win the seat outright on Nov. 8, so the two leading contenders advanced to a runoff election this Saturday, Dec. 10th.

As is often the case with Louisiana, which has voted safely for Republican Presidential candidates each cycle since 2000, the race was largely ignored by national media for most of the year, aside from some coverage of the racially-charged campaign of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke who says he was energized by Donald Trump's candidacy.

Now that Trump has won, Democrats around the country have showered Foster Campbell's campaign with cash and celebrity endorsements in an attempt to limit Republicans' incoming Senate majority to 51 seats.

"When I got through with the [Nov. 8th] campaign," Campbell said, "I had $8,000 left and I owed $80,000."

According to the Federal Election Commission, Campbell's campaign raised $2.5 million in the last filing period, ending Nov. 20. Donations have continued to pour in since, Campbell said.

"We're tickled to death and we're running like we're 100 points behind. But we're not," said Campbell.

Kennedy's campaign raised $1.6 million in the same period, according to the FEC. Nevertheless, the Republican is up by double digits in every poll.

Still, Republicans aren't taking any chances. Vice President-elect Mike Pence stumped for Kennedy in New Orleans on Saturday, and Donald Trump took to Twitter to endorse him. The campaign arm of Senate Republicans has opened 10 offices statewide.

"I've seen some surprises happen, and we don't intend to be surprised again," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-MS, the outgoing chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "It would be a bucket of cold water in the face to send a Democrat from Louisiana."

Wicker stressed the importance of Kennedy making sure Republicans have 52 Senate seats rather than the 51 they'd have were he to lose.

"Not everybody is always happy to go along with the leadership, Wicker said. "You don't always count on getting every vote for every issue."

Although Campbell has benefited from grassroots fundraising among Democrats, the national party has largely stayed on the sidelines. Repeated inquiries to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee went unanswered.

Campbell is furious at the lack of attention. "I don't know where they hell they are; they're missing in action!" he said.

Still, the Louisiana electorate makes this an uphill race for Campbell. Democratic candidates for statewide office in Louisiana generally need African-Americans to make up 30 percent of the electorate to win. But African-American turnout was at 21 percent two days before early voting closed last weekend, according to demographer Brandon Finnigan of Decision Desk, an independent election returns site.

Jim Nickel, a former chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party and a longtime political operative and lobbyist, was more blunt.

"This is John Kennedy's race to lose," he said.

Copyright 2016 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio

Ryan Kailath
Ryan Kailath [KY-lawth] is a business reporter at NPR in the New York bureau.

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