Natural disasters, allegations involving prostitutes, and white supremacist David Duke: It must be election season in Louisiana.
While primary season finished across the nation this week, Louisiana lays claim to the sole Election Day contest that also serves as a jungle primary.
Two dozen contenders have lined up for the seat of retiring Sen. David Vitter (R), who is leaving office after failing to win the governor’s mansion last year in an upset.
In the Pelican State, all candidates compete on a single Election Day ballot regardless of party, with a winner possible if any contender claims more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a Dec. 10 runoff.
But given the size of the field — 16 Republicans and Democrats combined, along with six independents and two Libertarians — it’s all but impossible to predict which front-runners could land in the runoff.
"Right now the polling trends point to a traditional R vs. D Louisiana runoff, but with a 24 person field and the landscape that came into question after last year’s race for governor, everyone is ready to expect the unexpected," said Jeremy Alford, editor of the website LaPolitics.com.
In last year’s gubernatorial showdown, the state skewed from its growing preference for Republicans in statewide races, as Democrat John Bel Edwards derailed Vitter’s anticipated transition to the governor’s mansion. Vitter’s loss was blamed in large part on renewed focus on his role in a 2007 prostitution scandal.
The specter of prostitution is also expected to heavily color the Senate race this cycle, in the wake of allegations that one front-runner, Rep. Charles Boustany (R), was a client of prostitutes who were later murdered.
The allegations appeared in the nonfiction work "Murder on the Bayou," which details the unsolved murders of eight prostitutes in Jefferson Davis Parish between 2005 and 2009.
A state aide to Boustany, who resigned this week, was also included in the book because he co-owned a firm that leased the motel where three of the murdered women may have worked, the Boudreaux Inn.
Boustany has fervently denied the allegations, and his campaign issued a letter from his wife, Bridget, on Monday calling the lawmaker a "dedicated public servant" and a "good man."
"He’s an effective leader, and his message is resonating with voters. So it’s no wonder that as he rises in the polls, he will become a target for liberals, for the media, and for his opponents," Bridget Boustany wrote. "But this week the media rumor mill and lies about Charles were simply that — false attacks aimed at bringing down a candidate who threatens to take the lead and win the race for U.S. Senate."
But his top opponents have seized on the allegations, making public statements to dismiss the suggestion that they were somehow involved with spreading the allegations while at the same time repeating them publicly.
"I want to be very clear that my campaign played absolutely no role in creating this story alleging Congressman Boustany’s sexual relationships with prostitutes that were later murdered, his staff’s alleged involvement in running the bar and hotel where this illicit behavior took place, or publishing the book," state Treasurer John Kennedy (R), who is also competing for the Senate seat, said in a statement this week.
Rep. John Fleming (R), another candidate, offered a similar message, along with "heartfelt prayers" for his House colleague.
"We pray Charles can address these scandalous allegations so we can return the campaign to a discussion of national policy issues rather than instances of alleged personal misconduct," Fleming said in a statement.
Alford noted that with only two months before Election Day, it is unlikely Boustany will be able to shake the tinge of scandal before voters cast their ballots.
"Labor Day is the unofficial start date for big elections in Louisiana and very quickly this race has turned into a three-ring circus," Alford said. He added: "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize some enterprising group is going to put this on a direct mail piece or even up on TV."
He added that the allegations are unlikely to shake long-term supporters of the House lawmaker, but it could still damage his chances with undecided voters: "In a 24-person field you’re going to feel every bump in the road."
Before the allegations broke, Boustany and Fleming — who along with Kennedy and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness are the most well-funded among Republican contenders — had sought to use the state’s flooding to boost their images in the Senate race.
Boustany released a 30-second video in late August featuring footage of a boat gliding down a flooded street.
"This is a time of adversity for Louisiana, but as the waters rose our characters rose even higher," Boustany states in the spot.
He later adds: "I’m proud to be from South Louisiana. I’m proud to fight for coastal restoration, good flood insurance and for the jobs that drive our coastal communities. Louisiana never quits, and I’ll never quit fighting for you. We’ll get through this together."
Fleming, who chairs the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, hit back at Boustany in August, noting his Republican colleague had missed a 2014 vote on the Grimm-Cassidy Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act.
"Charles Boustany’s campaign ad says he supports ‘good flood insurance,’ but he was the only member of the Louisiana congressional delegation to miss a critical vote in support of flood insurance," Fleming spokesman Matthew Beynon said. "Time and again Rep. Fleming has voted to defend flood victims. Nothing would have stood in his way of supporting this bill. Sadly the same cannot be said of Charles Boustany."
But while such fights might split voters from Boustany’s Lafayette-based 3rd District or Fleming’s Shreveport-based 4th District, Alford suggested that focusing on flooding might not sway voters in areas like New Orleans, despite past catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina.
"While there’s been flooding across the state this year, there’s plenty of dry areas that aren’t going to be as sympathetic to that messaging," Alford said. "Living in a disaster-prone state, the voters have become pretty savvy at recognizing when someone is trying to capitalize on disaster and response."
The Republican field also features another disaster of sorts, as professional racist David Duke makes his latest bid for public office.
Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader who has staged numerous failed bids for office in the Pelican State, most notably a 1991 gubernatorial bid, announced his latest run in July (Greenwire, July 22).
Duke’s candidacy — which threatens to pull conservative support from both Fleming and Maness — has even tinged the presidential election.
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence made headlines this week for refusing to categorize Duke as "deplorable," a reference to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s recent assertion that many of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s supporters are racist, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise discriminatory.
"I’m not in the name-calling business," Pence said in an interview on CNN. "We don’t want his support and we don’t want the support of the people who think like him."
In the meantime, Democratic voters are seeing a two-way race shape up between Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell and attorney Caroline Fayard, who lost a 2010 bid for lieutenant governor. Among the seven Democrats vying in the primary is also Pellerin Energy Group CEO Josh Pellerin.
"For the first time in a major election, Democrats have a choice between a traditional labor candidate and another candidate," Alford said, noting that the state’s Democratic governor has endorsed Campbell while former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is supporting Fayard in the race.