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Senate favorite Fleming's vacating opens ups CD 4

While north Louisiana might claim its first U.S. Senator in two decades, the chase for that seems certain to produce a new U.S. Representative in the northwest part of the state.

With Republican Rep. John Fleming formally announcing that he will pursue the seat of retiring Sen. David Vitter, he vacates his safe Fourth District post. That puts him up against Rep. Charles Boustany, 2014 candidate Rob Maness, and former Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, and others that could join in include Treasurer John Kennedy, state Rep. Paul Hollis, and Public Service Commissioners Scott Angelle and Eric Skrmetta, all Republicans.

Democrats could provide another north Louisiana option if the area's Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell enters the race, as he presently contemplates. However, a Democrat stands little chance of winning despite the recent upset that won former state Rep. John Bel Edwards the governorship. Senate contests attract an electorate more favorable to the GOP and bring to the forefront issues that in recent decades have favored Republicans in races for Congress. What a serious Democrat could do is make a runoff election and hand the highest-placed GOP finisher in the general election the victory, unless lightning strikes twice.

Of the four declared candidates, the lineup at this early junction would make Fleming the top vote-getter. He has as a base all of the state north of Interstate 10 and more ideological Republicans. Boustany can claim Acadiana and more voters to the center (although solidly a conservative, somewhat less to the political right than Fleming). Cao’s moderate term in the House could allow him to do decently well in the New Orleans area and, in an all-Republican field, could make the runoff. Even though he ran statewide two years ago as an anti-establishmentarian conservative and got a respectable 12 percent of the vote, Maness would have less appeal now than then because of Fleming’s unquestioned conservatism and the congressman’s high-profile opposition to establishment politics in Washington, rendering Maness a poor man’s version of the real deal.

Having a credible Democrat enter only strengthens Fleming’s hand. That would reduce Cao to a non-entity and siphon a few votes from Boustany with Fleming losing none of his support. The only real threat he might face from an additional candidate comes in the form of Kennedy, who has won his last three statewide contests with little or no competition, has run two Senate campaigns before and has the best crossover appeal of any potential candidate, and would become the favorite should he take the plunge. The other Republican entrants would eat less into Fleming’s base than into those of the other announced candidates or Democrats.

Fleming’s departure leaves the seat open, with one likely entrant in the form of state Rep. Mike Johnson. That would continue a whirlwind tour for him, having won a special election in 2014 unopposed, and doing the same last year. The Republican has gained national headlines with his defense of religious liberty, but never having faced opposition this would test his campaigning abilities.

Not that another possible entrant into the contest, state Rep. Jim Morris, has had to campaign much lately. This Republican, by contrast, slowly yet steadily has worked his way up the political ladder, running as a reform conservative in 1995 for the Caddo Parish Commission, then upon term limitation there moved up into the House in 2007. But he has not had a competitive election since 1999.

Both face questions of their electability. Johnson’s unabashed support of a socially conservative agenda may rankle some voters and activists and overshadows his other conservative issue preferences, making his short legislative career seem one-dimensional.

Morris aligned himself with a legislative faction called the “budget hawks,” who made much noise about reforming the state’s budget process and mentality in the shadow of chronic budgetary shortfalls. But to date the group has proved unserious by steadfastly refusing to introduce or to support legislation that speaks to the underlying disease, a budget hamstrung by far too many dedications and too little will by legislators to make necessary spending choices, Morris included. As such, and with another of its members contemplating running for Boustany’s place, those involved in the group seem more engaged in a public relations exercise with electoral ambitions in mind than in genuine policy solutions.

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