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Kennedy's running puts him at front of Senate field

The entrance of Republican Treasurer John Kennedy into the Senate contest this fall changes everything about that race.

It also elicits a sigh of relief from Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards. Kennedy would have posed the strongest challenger to an Edwards reelection, and probably would have defeated the incumbent had the election occurred to day. The treasurer winning the Senate obviously removes that threat, which would be reduced by his running and failing to win it, so now Edwards is a happy camper as a result of Kennedy’s choice. Kennedy likely headed in this direction spurred by his two past failures to snare the office (the first time as a Democrat) and at age 64 he would have to wait three more years to run for governor while not getting any younger.

His entrance makes him the best option at present for Democrats, who do not yet have a declared candidate. Of the Republicans running, only Anh “Joseph” Cao has the potential to have prompted significant crossover voting from Democrats, and, given the vast gulf in experience and publicity that Kennedy has earned over his 17 years as Treasurer and from that perch sniping at existing policy-makers for what he sees as a lack of fiscal probity, Cao as a Republican alternative for Democrats shrivels into insignificance. Kennedy would steal votes from any moderate Democrat that dares to run (the only Democrat name mentioned that comes close to this near-mythical creature is state Sen. Gary Smith), pushing into mathematically impossible territory the chance of such a candidate winning a seat.

With Kennedy aboard, with the chances of a more moderate Democrat that could make the runoff diminished close to zero, now that party faces a choice: roll the dice on a more moderate candidate likely aced out of the runoff or go with a hard core liberal that has a decent chance of making the runoff who will get slaughtered in the runoff but perhaps would provide incentive for the extreme left to turn out and support down-ballot candidates. In other words, they can bet on a longshot that could backfire down the ballot or put up a sacrificial lamb that could help win a few other races.

Among Republicans, with Kennedy’s entry Cao has company in being put on the defensive. While a conservative, the more moderate leanings of Rep. Charles Boustany also makes some of his support vulnerable for capture by Kennedy. And Kennedy completely steals the thunder of 2014 Senate candidate Rob Maness, whose reputation as a conservative already made for tough sledding when stacked against Rep. John Fleming, considered the most conservative prominent figure running. This left as Maness’ only opening to present himself as a non-Washington conservative, if not populist as well, alternative to Fleming, but now Kennedy can position himself as a non-establishment populist with far more credibility.

Kennedy’s entrance least impacts Fleming, who with Maness now further neutralized has the clearest path to the runoff. But his problem is that, once there, Kennedy likely would be his opponent and would win that matchup. Fleming must hope that a quality Democrat enters the contest to siphon enough votes from Kennedy to relegate him to third place or lower.

With his crossover appeal and credibility, Kennedy now becomes the clear favorite in the field as it now stands, with Fleming best placed to join him in the runoff, although Boustany would not trail by much. Cao and Maness have become afterthoughts, while the likes of Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle should give many second thoughts to running and instead try for a more realistically-attained congressional seat, and other possible Republican entrants such as Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta and state Rep. Paul Hollis, both of whom would compete in the solid conservative lane with Fleming, might find their resources too sparse and opportunities too limited to make any serious attempt.

Democrats must now ask themselves whether they can live with Kennedy or run someone meaningful with little chance of winning that increases the chances of Fleming or perhaps Boustany triumphing. They may settle for the treasurer solely on the basis that Kennedy already has demonstrated he will act as a powerful critic of Edwards and that shuffling him off to the Senate might turn down the heat. And he did campaign as a liberal Democrat only a dozen years ago.

So unless a significant Democrat makes a play for the seat, Kennedy finally has found a Senate contest that is his to lose.

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