Kennedy’s Poll Shows He’s Vulnerable to Democrat Challenger For U.S. Senate

According to the most recent poll released by Make Louisiana Proud, a SuperPAC affiliated with State Treasurer John Kennedy’s campaign for U.S. Senate, Kennedy maintains a commanding lead over his rivals, garnering more than twice the support of his closest competitor, fellow Republican and U.S. Congressman Charles Boustany. The election is still more than seven months away, and the field is already enormously crowded, with at least ten candidates who have either announced or speculated to announce in the near future.

The poll, conducted by Survey USA, shows Kennedy ahead of the pack of Republicans with 21%, followed by Boustany at 10%, Congressman John Fleming at 7%, Col. Rob Manness at 6%, former Congressman Joseph Cao at 4%. Independent candidate Troy Hebert registers at 5%.

Thus far, it is far too early to anticipate exactly how the Republican field will eventually shape up. Kennedy may be ahead by sheer fortune of his name recognition. It is difficult to tell whether his recent stunts on the state’s budget crisis and the revelations that he leased office space from a campaign donor that cost the state an additional $293,000 a year will damage his standing or his reputation as a fiscal watchdog. Kennedy’s apparent decision to transfer (some would use the word “launder”) the remaining $2.8 million balance of his state campaign fund into his national SuperPAC, something that no candidate has ever done before, could raise additional questions about his respect for the integrity and the ethics of campaign finance. To be sure, David Vitter transferred money from his federal campaign coffers into a statewide SuperPAC, but Kennedy’s proposed money transfer implicates different law.

With Scott Angelle opting to run for U.S. Congress, Charles Boustany should have the easiest and clearest path at dethroning Kennedy from the top of the GOP heap. Boustany is already actively raising money, particularly among his fellow physicians. Congressman Boustany is soft-spoken and genial, a stark contrast to the Treasurer, and though he is relatively unknown outside of his district, he is generally well-liked among his colleagues. Boustany also has the unusual distinction of being both the cousin of Vicki Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and, believe it or not, the nephew (by marriage) to Edwin Washington Edwards.

If, in fact, the race tightens up between Kennedy and Boustany, as I expect it will, anticipate a vicious campaign. Boustany was sued eight times for medical malpractice, the details of which are largely public. He also once proposed a plan to allow Medicare patients to participate in voluntary “end of life counseling,” which some radical Republicans, most notably Sarah Palin, labeled “death panels.” He also sued a construction company for “mental anguish” for a pool resurfacing project. And bizarrely, he once spent nearly $20,000 to secure a royal title, only later to find out that he had been duped by a couple of scam artists and earning him the nickname “Lord Boustany.”

Congressman John Fleming, arguably the most divisive and least-liked member of the Louisiana Congressional delegation, is moving to Metairie. Fleming, who has a gross annual income of $6.3 million and a net income of $600,000 a year is worth nearly $10 million, recently complained of only having $200,000 a year to feed his family, which, for some reason, he believed would elicit sympathy. As anyone who follows the Congressman on social media can attest, he sometimes seems to inhabit a completely different reality. It is also worth noting that rumors continue to persist that Fleming may ultimately decide to drop out of the race, though, if Tony Perkins’s recent endorsement is any indication, it likely would not occur any time soon. Regardless, Fleming narrowly won his first election to Congress, and it is difficult to believe in his “taxed enough already” bona fides when he complains about his $200,000 family dinner budget.

Col. Rob Manness had an impressive showing when he ran for Senate in 2014, hauling in 13.8% of the vote and finishing in third place behind Bill Cassidy (the eventual winner) and Mary Landrieu. He ran a strong, libertarian-minded campaign and arguably prevented then-Congressman Cassidy from winning outright in the general election. Then, though, Manness had the advantage of running against a much weaker field of challengers. Two years later, with the TEA Party’s influence waning and with the dynamics of a presidential election at play, he faces a much different electorate. His almost singular obsession on illegal immigration is likely to continue to resonate, but it seems unlikely he will be able to raise the money necessary to mount a competitive campaign against a field of well-known, well-financed candidates. Interestingly, a push poll from a DC-based TEA Party group has begun to circulate about the vulnerability of Congressman Steve Scalise, and some speculate that Manness may decide instead to opt out of the race for Senate and challenge Scalise, whose reputation was severely damaged after the Congressman admitted attending a white supremacist conference when he served in the state legislature. To be sure, though, the poll still shows Scalise with 54% support in his district.

Finally, former Congressman Joseph Cao also decided to throw his hat in the ring. Among conservatives, Cao, who won his only term after defeating William Jefferson, a man who is currently serving time in a federal prison, will likely forever be known as the Republican who voted for Obamacare (before he voted against it). This is an unforgivable sin for most in the Republican base, and it is impossible to see how Cao could ever break anywhere close to the double digits.

The independent candidate Troy Hebert, the former director of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, could not have picked a worse time to run for U.S. Senate. On January 26, Tom Aswell of Louisiana Voice and Fox 8 reported that the FBI is currently investigating Hebert for extorting sex from a woman in exchange for helping fix an issue with her alcohol permit.

It seems unlikely all of these candidates remain in the election, but if they do, I anticipate an extremely close contest between Kennedy and Boustany, with the other five candidates (including Hebert) cannibalizing one another for third.

My (extremely) early guess, subject to regular and unapologetic changes:

  • Kennedy: 24
  • Boustany: 21
  • Fleming: 5
  • Manness: 5
  • Cao: 1
  • Hebert: 1

Total Republican (and Independent) percentage:  57%
Among Democrats, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell leads with 12%, followed by New Orleans attorney Caroline Fayard at 10%, New Orleans attorney Derrick Edwards at 5%, and Lafayette businessman Josh Pellerin at 3%. 15% are still undecided. The poll has a margin of error of +/-4.1%.

The conventional wisdom in statewide elections is that Democrats can only guarantee a spot in a run-off election if they clear the field for one candidate, though this poll, albeit an extremely early snapshot, suggests that two Democratic candidates, Foster Campbell and Caroline Fayard, polling equal or slightly above Kennedy’s main Republican rival, Charles Boustany.

In Commissioner Campbell’s last statewide campaign, a 2007 bid for governor, he received 12% of the vote against three other opponents, which is exactly where the poll places him today. To be sure, the race for governor, in an off-cycle election year against a significantly less crowded field, offers a much different dynamic than this year’s election. Campbell is also well-known, particularly in his native North Louisiana, having served in the State Senate for 24 years and campaigned unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress in 1980, 1988, and 1990.

Caroline Fayard also has experience running for statewide office. In 2010, Fayard, then only 33 years old, ran for Lt. Governor in a field of eight candidates, shocking much of the political establishment and the media when she finished a close second to outgoing Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, earning 24% to his 28%. Some Republican strategists blamed Fayard’s surprising second-place finish to the poorer-than-expected showing by country music star Sammy Kershaw, who finished in third with 19%. However, Fayard also had to overcome two Democratic challengers, Shreveport attorney Jim Crowley and State Senator Butch Gautreaux.

Fayard ultimately lost in the run-off to Dardenne, but still managed to capture 44% of the vote or more than 540,000 voters, an impressive margin for a neophyte candidate running against someone who had already won eight consecutive elections, including two statewide elections. “Intelligent, attractive and well-spoken, Fayard is the type of political newcomer that voters tend to want to encourage,” the late John Maginnis wrote at the time.

I do not know Derrick Edwards, but I understand he is a disability rights activist and a lawyer, which, in my book, means he must be a righteous guy. I also do not know Josh Pellerin, who, at 34, would be the youngest member of the Senate if elected. I could very well be wrong, but I do not anticipate either of these candidates running robust or serious statewide elections. The truncated timeframe does not favor a candidate with almost zero name recognition and with no experience organizing and leading a statewide campaign operation.

Assuming that another competitive Democrat does not enter the race or that John Georges decides to give his lawyers the afternoon off on qualifying day, the race among Democrats will almost certainly be between Campbell and Fayard.

I know both of them personally, and as a Democrat myself, it likely won’t shock you to know that I wholeheartedly believe either one of them would make a much better United States Senator than any of the candidates on the Republican side.

Campbell and Fayard will be drawing from two different geographic constituencies: Foster in North Louisiana and Fayard in South Louisiana. This should give Fayard an immediate advantage. Simply put, there are more chronic Democratic voters in South Louisiana and in New Orleans than there are in North Louisiana and Shreveport.

In order to make up this margin, Campbell will have to work aggressively to pick up rural Democratic voters, and fortunately for him, he is well-versed in these issues. However, because this election is occurring at the same time as as the presidential election, it will likely be a difficult challenge. In Louisiana, as in the rest of the nation, Democratic voters are largely concentrated in urban areas, and turning out those voters will require a strong, on-the-ground field operation. In his previous election for governor, Campbell relied on a small group of loyal supporters. This year, no one can count on replicating the success of the bare-bones team that John Bel Edwards assembled. For one thing, turnout in presidential elections could be as much as 30 points higher as it was last November.

Campbell’s central message throughout his political career has been about taking on the oil and gas industry and restructuring the ways in which Louisiana receives revenue more fairly and equitably. In this respect, Campbell is a progressive populist, but his message may find a less receptive audience in parts of the state suffering from the declining revenues due to the decreased price of oil. It will be interesting to see the ways in which Campbell refines his message in order to win those voters over.

Commissioner Campbell does have one important ace up his sleeve: The endorsement of Gov. John Bel Edwards. Edwards could help Campbell attract many of those rural voters he needs, and his support lends gravitas and respectability.

Fayard, as she proved in 2010, is willing to work harder than anyone else on the campaign trail. Already, she has quietly assembled an experienced team of professionals; opened up two different campaign offices- one in New Orleans and a headquarters in Baton Rouge; she has been touring the state on an almost daily basis, and she has been persistently raising money from all corners of Louisiana.

Both Campbell and Fayard are capable of self-financing, and to the best of my knowledge, thus far, neither of them have. In her previous election, Republicans attempted to accuse her of an ethics violation for donations made by family members to the Louisiana Democratic Party; those charges were dismissed. Neither Caroline Fayard nor any one in her family did anything improper, but perhaps it is not surprising that some in the Louisiana Republican establishment were threatened enough by a young Democratic candidate that they felt the need to attempt to smear her with a bogus complaint.

Fayard may be young, and like Pellerin, she too would be the youngest member of the Senate if elected. But there is a definite advantage at electing younger candidates to the Senate, particularly in a state that now suddenly lacks seniority. The longer one serves, the more influential one becomes and the more effective they can be for their constituents.

There is one other incident from Fayard’s previous election that Republicans have attempted to use against her. In a speech shortly after her defeat, Fayard lamented the ways in which the Republican Party attacked her Republican opponent, Jay Dardenne, allegedly saying, “I hate Republicans.” The comment was clearly taken out of context; Fayard is currently engaged to be married to a Republican. But Republicans in Louisiana took full advantage, even printing bumperstickers reading “Caroline Fayard hates me.” At the time, there was speculation that Fayard was considering a challenge against Gov. Bobby Jindal. According to one of the Jindal campaign staffers at the time, the stickers were simply a cynical attempt to diminish the popularity of who they saw as their biggest threat.

Perhaps they were right to see Fayard as a formidable opponent. She likely would have been. Six years later, Fayard appears to be laying the groundwork for a serious, statewide campaign. She has one other ace up her sleeve: She once worked as an intern for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and although Gov. Edwards may prefer Foster Campbell, Ms. Clinton, who is, as of this writing, expected to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidency and leading in general election polls by double digits, supports Caroline Fayard.  However, I anticipate Ms. Clinton’s campaign would stay out of the Louisiana Senate election until the run-off.

Again, I admire both candidates deeply, but I think Fayard, once again, will surprise the entire state.

SurveyUSA, the polling organization used by John Kennedy’s SuperPAC, also tested a series of heads-up races, and I think they’re worth considering:

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 6.05.42 AM

Not surprisingly, John Kennedy’s SuperPAC predicts that John Kennedy would win everything, but look carefully at these cross tabs and also consider the strong likelihood that a woman will be on the top of the ticket for President. I am particularly interested in the polling of the Democratic candidates.

Treasurer Kennedy’s PAC predicts that only one out of every three women will vote for Caroline Fayard. It predicts that Fayard will also receive only one out of every three voters between the ages of 18-34, and that Kennedy will pick up nearly 20% of self-identified Democrats from Fayard. But what is most shocking and frankly absurd is that SurveyUSA predicts Fayard will receive only 18% of white voters and only 73% of black voters. The same predictions roughly hold for Foster Campbell.

Granted, 12% of those polled were undecided, but these numbers are laughable and contrary to practically everything we know about voting trends in Louisiana.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that, like last year’s gubernatorial primary, 40% of voters will vote for a Democrat. Kennedy’s poll assumes it will only be 30%. I think that is especially bogus, particularly if Donald Trump is the nominee.

When Mary Landrieu lost in 2014, she received 25% of white voters. When John Bel Edwards won in 2015, he received 39% of white voters. Let’s assume the Democrat, whether it is Campbell or Fayard, receives somewhere in between that, 32%. Now, let’s also assume the Democratic candidate receives 95% of the African-American vote, which is in line with historical trends.

Now, I recognize there are a whole host of other factors at play, including turn-out, and that there are a significant number of undecideds in Kennedy’s poll. But if these numbers hold up, Kennedy cannot even come close to winning by 20%. In fact, there is a reasonable argument to made that the Democrat can beat Kennedy, not by the 12.2% that Edwards beat Vitter by, but potentially by as much as 4%. It actually could happen, and there is a reason Hillary Clinton’s team is seriously considering investing in Louisiana, especially if Trump is the nominee.

My (extremely) early guess, subject to regular and unapologetic changes:

  • Fayard: 24*
  • Campbell: 15*
  • Edwards: 1
  • Pellerin: 3

Total Democratic percentage:  43%

*24% is the same number Fayard captured in her first primary election for Lt. Governor.
* If Ms. Clinton is at the top of the ticket, Fayard could be the beneficiary of an all-women downticket, in which case Campbell’s support would drop.

In other words:

  • Fayard: 24
  • Kennedy: 24
  • Boustany: 21
  • Campbell: 15
  • Fleming: 5
  • Manness: 5
  • Pellerin: 3
  • Cao: 1
  • Hebert: 1
  • Edwards: 1

And then guess what happens? The clock ticks through to December, an entirely different electorate comes out, and all bets are, once again, off.

However, if Ms. Clinton becomes President-elect Clinton and wants to ensure the cushion in the Senate she will require to pass through her agenda, then her very first investment will be Louisiana in December.