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Electoral lesson proves fleeting for LA Democrats

It’s official: Louisiana Democrats have cracked up, drawing exactly the wrong lessons from last fall’s unforeseen victory of Gov. John Bel Edwards that make the most likely outcome of this fall’s U.S. Senate contest electing the Republican they least desire.

With north Louisiana’s Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell joining his fellow partisan Democrat Caroline Fayard in the contest, that puts two committed and independently wealthy liberal Democrats into the field. Republicans Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming, former Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, Treasurer John Kennedy, and former Senate candidate Rob Maness also have taken the plunge.

It also highlights a battle between different wings of the party demonstrating some delusion among its elites. Fayard represents the extremist left that controls the state party, while Campbell comes from the hard left wing that occupies the Governor’s mansion. They differ on social issues with the extremists further away from the center.

Edwards benefited from a perfect storm that he could ride to victory. That triumph revealed that in this center-right state a Democrat could win if he could make the race more about personalities than about issues and present himself as a blank policy slate with enough alleged conservative social beliefs to make a pretense of overall conservatism credible -- and have the good fortune of Republicans campaigning against each other to the point they leave a damaged opponent to face in a runoff the single quality Democrat who ran that fit this bill.

Of course, planning on again catching lightning in a bottle presupposes setting yourself up for success if luck goes your way, and having either of Campbell or Fayard running fails on this account. Neither has a blank slate: Fayard’s shrillness in her previous statewide campaign for lieutenant governor with the added bonus of her “I hate Republicans” rant, her questionable campaign finance deals then, and her association with the most unrepentant liberals in the state if highlighted in the campaign by adversaries guarantees few who typically voted Republican for national offices will give her a second look; Campbell’s reflexive populism highlighted by his obsession over a damaging oil processing tax (although that issue has nothing to do with national tax policy) in a state where its energy industry hangs by a thread will turn off most of these voters as well.

Add to this that the GOP contestants seem unlikely to turn on each other with as much cause and vigor as Republican gubernatorial candidates did to their frontrunner while giving Edwards a free ride, plus the electorate historically has about a five point swing in favor of Republicans comparing federal to statewide state office elections, and it becomes obvious that either one if running without the other has little chance of winning in a runoff. But because of their ambitions – a Senate seat in Louisiana comes open once a generation although with Campbell pushing 70 and Fayard about half that age she has a more convincing case for longevity – if both qualify, in this environment it’s more likely than not they will split the Democrat vote and consequentially neither makes the runoff.

If it comes to that, Democrats then will have to decide whether they should vote strategically for a less-objectionable – that is, less conservative – GOP candidate instead of choosing either of these. Having only one quality Democrat in the contest, as happened in the case of Edwards, pulls fewer votes from more moderate Republicans, allowing potentially one of them to make it into the runoff against the Democrat. However, having two takes more of those votes, disproportionately favoring the most conservative Republican to advance and therefore ultimately winning (as long as the party does not self-immolate so spectacularly as it did last year). Worst of all, this could lead to a runoff with the most conservative GOP candidate against a more moderate one that could produce the same result and, without a Democrat at the top of the ticket, depress Democrat turnout in any down-ballot runoff contests.

Yet state Democrats seem headed in that direction with two quality candidates reluctant to give up their shot prior to counting ballots. Only a party deluded into thinking it need not change its issue preferences, through mistaking Edwards’ fluke win for not being that, would have its principals unable to unify the party behind a single quality candidate, and one not so easily identified as liberal as the pair now out there.

Some people need more than one lesson to grasp the truth of a matter, and by failing to learn this Louisiana Democrats, who could have taken last year’s good luck and progressed a step forward towards resuscitation, instead seem set to move backwards two that could leave them worse off than otherwise.

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