Democrats are channeling their post-election disappointment — and pouring buckets of donor cash — into a long-shot bid for the Louisiana Senate seat.
The odds are not good for Louisiana Democrat Foster Campbell, who is facing off against GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy in the runoff on Dec. 10. President-elect Donald Trump just carried the state by 20 percentage points in November, and Kennedy led Campbell 52 percent to 38 percent in a poll this week. And Trump’s running mate, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, is scheduled to give Kennedy’s base an energy boost by appearing at a rally with Kennedy in New Orleans on Saturday.
But Campbell, a state public service commissioner, has raised $2.5 million over the past month, much of it in small dollar donations from Democrats around the country looking for some way to strike back against Trump. Kennedy raised $1.6 million over the same time frame. Each man had about $1.4 million left in their campaign account.
Campbell brought in $43,000 from small donors from January to Oct. 20; since then, $1.7 million in small donations have poured in as Democrats — like former Obama administration staffers Dan Pfeiffer and Jon Favreau, who recently had Campbell on their podcast — hold up Campbell’s race as the final fight of the 2016 election and hope for an upset.
“Based on demographics and what’s going on in Louisiana, [Campbell] faces an uphill climb,” said Trey Ourso, a Democratic consultant who ran a super PAC backing Gov. John Bel Edwards in his upset of Sen. David Vitter last year. “But voters this year have shown they like to surprise us.”
Campbell’s bid is, in many ways, a second go-round for the team that elected Edwards, who endorsed Campbell early. Mary-Patricia Wray, a top Edwards strategist, is playing the same role for Campbell. Edwards’ ad-maker, Jared Arsement, is making spots for Defend Louisiana, a pro-Campbell super PAC.
Recapturing that magic will be difficult. While Kennedy has his flaws — the Campbell campaign and Republicans have regularly attacked him for flip-flopping — he’s not Vitter, who was dogged by a prostitution scandal. Campbell shares Edwards’ rural credentials and opposition to abortion rights, but he lacks the West Point background that helped the governor woo Louisiana conservatives in his stunning 2015 upset victory.
Kennedy, meanwhile, is tying himself closely to Trump. “I’ve been with our new president from day one,” Kennedy says in a television ad. “Because I believe we don’t have time for political correctness anymore. And the swamp in Washington, D.C., has to be drained.”
Still, Campbell has a history of winning over Republican-leaning voters and his team insists the race is in the single digits. In 2014, he won 61 percent of the vote in his North Louisiana-based district even as former Sen. Mary Landrieu won just 41 percent of the vote in the same area. (Landrieu lost the statewide vote, 56 percent to 44 percent, to now-GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy.) And Campbell will need crossover votes, especially if the electorate skews away from his party, as it has in early voting so far. When Edwards pulled off his upset in 2015, defeating Vitter with 56 percent of the vote, 30 percent of early voters were black and 52 percent were Democratic. So far, the early runoff vote in 2016 has been just 21 percent black and 44 percent Democratic.
Campbell’s allies have alighted on abortion in an attempt to deepen Campbell’s conservative appeal. Defend Louisiana has started running an ad attacking Kennedy for supporting abortion rights when he was a Democrat. (2016 marks Kennedy’s third bid for Senate; he ran as a Democrat in 2004 and as a Republican in 2008.)
“He’s been a Democrat. He’s been a Republican. John Kennedy’s been everything but a Baptist preacher,” Campbell said in a phone interview. “John Kennedy’s been what’s best for John Kennedy.”
Kennedy’s team scoffs at such attacks, and notes Vice President-elect Mike Pence will be campaigning with Kennedy to shore up the latter’s conservative credentials this weekend.
And a message blasting Kennedy for supporting abortion rights makes for an odd fit for Campbell, who has generated support from coastal liberals, attracted both to his populist and environmentalist standards and to their last chance in 2016 to get a win. White House economist Gene Sperling recently hosted a fundraiser for Campbell in Los Angeles on Monday, and other Democratic heavyweights like former White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer have encouraged liberals to donate to his campaign. (Edwards, the governor, also hosted a Wednesday fundraiser for the Defend Louisiana PAC with Landrieu, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and Rep. Cedric Richmond.)
“West Coast liberals think they can buy this election for Foster Campbell,” Kennedy spokesman Lionel Rainey said. “John Kennedy has received the support of donors from across Louisiana who understand he is the only conservative in this race who supports our values. Foster Campbell represents the views of Democrats from California.”
Even with Campbell’s strong fundraising — Kennedy still hasn’t released his own fundraising report — Republicans are still outspending Democrats on television in the state. With Kennedy’s own funds, the Ending Spending Action super PAC and a coordinated buy between Kennedy and the NRSC, Republican groups spent about $524,000 on TV last week. Campbell and his allies have spent just $307,000.
And the NRSC’s independent expenditure arm is spending about $10,000 on radio advertisements in the state starting on Monday, according to a media-buying source.
One thing that appears unlikely: any help from the DSCC, which declined to comment for this story.
But Campbell thinks he can pull off a solo upset. Asked if he needed the DSCC’s help, Campbell had a simple response: “Nope.”