With less than three weeks before Election Day, Louisiana’s gubernatorial contest is currently dominating political headlines in the state. But a more subtle political contest has been shaping up for months, as well: winning the nod to succeed Sen. David Vitter (R) on Capitol Hill.
If Louisiana’s senior senator claims victory in a November runoff election for governor — an October primary contest will narrow the field of four front-runners down to the top two, unless one candidate unexpectedly claims a victory with a majority of the vote — he will also have the ability to appoint his temporary successor in the Senate.
Although Vitter could step down immediately after the November contest, handing off responsibility for naming a new senator to term-limited Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), that scenario is widely considered unlikely to occur.
"It may be irresistible for David Vitter not to put his closest ally in that position, because then he would have been instrumental in the election of both senators from Louisiana," said Pearson Cross, who heads the political science department at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
Cross noted that Vitter is widely credited with helping to clear the GOP field for then-Rep. Bill Cassidy (R) in his successful 2014 bid against Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
He added: "That’d be power going back to the days of Huey Long, just about," in reference to the state’s long-ago governor and senator, who was also known as "The Kingfish."
An appointed senator would serve until the end of Vitter’s current term in early 2017, but the interim status would give that lawmaker a leg up in the 2016 contest for a full term.
While no competitive candidates have formally announced for the Senate seat, four would-be GOP contenders have hinted at their candidacies or acknowledged their intention to run following the gubernatorial race.
That group features two House lawmakers, Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming, and state Treasurer John Kennedy, as well as retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, who placed third in the 2014 Senate primary against Landrieu and Cassidy.
While Boustany, Fleming and Kennedy have all endorsed Vitter in the race and even acted as surrogates on his gubernatorial bid, the senator has given no indication that he’s leaning toward nominating any of the three if he wins.
"Vitter is playing that nomination, who that might be to replace him temporarily, very close to his chest," Cross said. "None of the three have been promised that post."
But Cross and other political observers suggest that the most likely choice for Vitter — assuming he wouldn’t opt to put a "placeholder," or someone who would not seek a full term, into the office — would be Fleming, a fourth-term lawmaker who represents the state’s Shreveport-based 4th District.
Fleming, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, most closely aligns with Vitter politically and is widely believed to have opted out of the 2014 Senate race at his behest.
"I think Fleming stands a decent chance more than the other two and will probably campaign more aggressively to be the appointee to fill out the remainder of Vitter’s term," said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana, Monroe.
Fleming, who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, banked nearly $2.1 million in his campaign coffers at the end of June, the most recent data available.
Boustany, who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, reported $1.1 million in his bank account at that time but raised an impressive $713,000 in the second quarter of this year.
The sixth-term lawmaker, who represents the Lafayette-based 3rd District, told The Advertiser newspaper in Lafayette earlier this year that he had begun to tour the state to meet with supporters.
But Stockley suggested Louisiana Republicans might want Boustany to stay put in the House, where he claims seniority and a post on an influential committee.
"With the exception of [House Majority Whip] Steve Scalise, we don’t have a very powerful or a very senior congressional delegation in either chamber," Stockley said.
Still, another political observer suggests that it is Kennedy who is in the pole position for an appointment to the Senate.
"John Kennedy of all three of them seems to have become one of the go-to surrogates for David Vitter this cycle," said Jeremy Alford, editor of the website LaPolitics.com, pointing to Kennedy’s quick reaction in recent weeks to news that Vitter was slipping in his lead in the gubernatorial race.
"Kennedy was the first one to step up and send out a mass email defending Vitter’s position," Alford said.
In addition, Kennedy could make a strong pitch for his ability to hold the Senate seat in 2016, when it will be up for grabs in an open-party primary in which all candidates compete and the top two go to a December runoff if necessary.
"He’s been one of the most popular officials statewide in Louisiana, so he would be able to hit the ground running with money and name recognition," Alford said.
Kennedy has also been able to boost his own profile in the off-year state elections thanks to his bid to win another term as state treasurer.
"He’s dropping some serious money on TV," Alford noted, pointing to a one-minute biographical spot the campaign released in August. The ad, which also includes a brief explanation of Kennedy’s job as treasurer, was produced by GOP media consultant Fred Davis. "He’s working with a national ad man for a state race where he only has token opposition. It’s clear that he’s building up to something."
A former Kennedy aide also set up a federal super political action committee in August, the Make Louisiana Proud PAC, which has yet to report any fundraising data.
Kennedy has made two previous bids for the state’s Senate seats, including a failed 2008 bid against Landrieu and a failed 2004 bid as a Democrat against Vitter, in which he placed third in the primary behind then-Rep. Chris John (D).
Although Maness, who claims support from the GOP’s tea party wing, surprised many political observers when he snagged 14 percent of the Senate primary vote in 2014, his would-be candidacy may not prove as successful in a race that also includes another conservative Republican.
"You have two guys that are going to run to the right of the field," Alford said. "He’s going to shave votes off of Fleming, who really is that far-right conservative archetype."
Regardless of which candidate Vitter might select to replace him, however, an appointment to the Senate won’t guarantee a full term in the seat when it comes up in the 2016 election.
"Whoever Vitter appoints to that seat … will be challenged, without a doubt. It doesn’t matter who it is," Alford said.
Gaming out the runoff
A recent poll commissioned by The Advocate newspaper in Baton Rouge — which showed Vitter trailing each of his primary competitors in a head-to-head race — raises another possibility: Vitter could end up facing off with his would-be Senate successors in a 2016 race.
"I can only assume all or most of these guys are going to run against him if he does lose. They’ll smell the blood in the water," Alford said.
The Advocate‘s survey, conducted by the Clarus Research Group, showed Vitter and state House Minority Leader John Bel Edwards (D) tied at 24 percent in the primary, followed by Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle with 15 percent and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (R) with 14 percent.
An additional 18 percent of voters remained undecided. The survey of 800 likely voters had a 3.5-point margin of error.
But Edwards’ high marks could be credited in part to the fact that Republicans in the race have largely ignored the Democrat to date as they work to knock each other out of the primary contest. A Republican would be favored in a runoff with Edwards, whereas a Republican-vs.-Republican contest in November would be harder to handicap.
"He just gets a pass at this point. There’s really no point in any of the candidates attacking him specifically," Cross said of Edwards. "He’s almost guaranteed a spot in the runoff."
Still, should Vitter, once seen as a lock on the governorship, somehow lose the race, he could face competition in his re-election bid next year.
"If Vitter does lose this race, I think it does open the door for an intraparty candidacy," Stockley said, noting that Fleming would be the least likely candidate to challenge Vitter, given the pair’s relationship. "I think John Kennedy would be the most emboldened if he loses. He returns to being the state treasurer, [and if he loses a 2016 Senate bid], he doesn’t, quote unquote, lose anything."
But given that Kennedy endorsed Vitter’s gubernatorial bid and has worked on his behalf, such a challenge could be difficult to present to voters.
"Kennedy has a free shot at it, but having already endorsed Vitter for governor, it’s going to be awkward to turn around and run against him as senator," said Cross, who added that Boustany and Fleming would also be unlikely to give up safe House seats in such a scenario.
Vitter "would no longer be the master of Louisiana politics, but he wouldn’t face serious electoral problems," Cross added.
Dems unlikely to be a factor in ’16
There is one notable absence in the battle for Louisiana’s to-be-vacated Senate seat.
"What we haven’t seen yet is a Democrat," Alford said, noting that the party has not won a statewide race in seven years.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who is Mary Landrieu’s brother, is a top pick among many Democrats to run for Senate, although he has been reluctant to seek higher office. Edwards could also gain backing for 2016, depending on his performance in the gubernatorial race.
"The Democrats have a bleak future in the Senate race," Stockley said.