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Kennedy fumble may create opening for others

Perhaps Treas. John Kennedy thought his U.S. Senate opponent Rep. Charles Boustany was having too much fun making unforced campaign errors, and so decided to join him out of perhaps the same motivation.

Last time this space noted the Boustany campaign’s odd handling of allegations that the candidate had frequented prostitutes. Despite the lack of verifiable, credible evidence to back up the claim made by a freelance writer in a recently-published book, after the candidate denied it the campaign kept revisiting the issue and then charged Kennedy in particular with the equivalent of spreading gossip about the issue.

Kennedy’s campaign staff had sent out links to media coverage of the book’s assertion, and when Boustany’s wife and staff pointed that out and elevated that action to negative rumormongering, Kennedy responded by denying circulating anything other than pertinent news, managing one by one to name the accusations. This inflamed Boustany even more, who openly complained, apparently trying to create the impression that these actions demonstrated Kennedy’s flawed character that made him unworthy of entering the Senate, and perhaps even unworthy enough for him to lick Boustany’s boots.

This unusual strategy seemed born of an effort to peel votes from Kennedy towards Boustany in the hopes of the latter making the inevitable general election runoff. Yet that implied he knew he could not defeat Kennedy in a runoff, and so had to go for broke to ace him out of the runoff and set up a presumably easier candidate to defeat to face off against.

As the clear frontrunner, Kennedy needed to do nothing more. Boustany’s tactic might cost his fellow Republican a few votes, but at the risk of looking petty that might cost him even more while all their opponents got a free ride, actually increasing the chances of one of them making the runoff against a relatively unharmed Kennedy.

But then Kennedy helped to bail out Boustany. After Boustany’s critique of him went public, Kennedy fired back, saying “He’s saying I can’t talk about the issue that goes directly to his character? Of course I can talk about the issue, everybody is talking about this issue.” Restating the reputed events of the book, he added that he would repeat the fact that the material was out there, and suggested that if Boustany meant what he said about the falsity of it all that he would sue the publisher, who stands by the author.

Kennedy may have thought this response a smart move, making removal of the credibility of the issue dependent upon Boustany engaging in a distracting legal battle that would keep the issue in the headlines during the race. However, it also ratified Boustany’s original argument all along: Kennedy was a meanie willing to sling mud and therefore of inferior temperament to hold office. It assists, if not shifting the argument of character from Boustany to Kennedy, in having Kennedy join Boustany as having questions about their characters.

Had Kennedy been in the position of Boustany and a few other competitors trying desperately to muscle past one another to make the runoff, this voluntary continuation of the controversy after Boustany apparently came out on the losing end of it that would serve to risk his image might make sense. But Kennedy’s lapping the field at this point; he doesn’t need to do anything except respond to serious attacks, and his initial foray accomplished that. Anything beyond that risks damage to his image; why not let the other candidates trying to climb past Boustany take the risks and let them all damage each other while he stays above the fray?

Only if Kennedy fears Boustany making the runoff, implying he could lose in it to him, could his latest reaction make sense. He might think the others will not do the lifting for him on an issue he sees as ideal to knock out Boustany, and shows willingness to suffer erosion of support beyond necessary in order to pursue that end.

Which leads to an interesting standoff. Boustany went out of his way to accuse Kennedy of unseemly smearing because he felt he needed to degrade Kennedy’s position to gain votes at his expense out of the fear of an inability to defeat him in a runoff. Now Kennedy may be returning the favor, wanting to finish off Boustany so that he could face a presumably easier opponent to defeat in the runoff.

It seems each has signaled the other as his greatest threat. That could work to the advantage of all the other candidates; certainly Boustany’s image may suffer to the point eliminating him as a threat, and they could dream that the spat significantly erodes Kennedy’s commanding lead as well. It faintly echoes last year’s governor’s race when competitive Republicans tore into each other hoping to make the runoff against the lone Democrat, now governor, John Bel Edwards, in the process destroying each other so much that they permitted Edwards to consolidate too much support to lose.

While that scenario seems far-fetched to duplicate to the extent that a Democrat could win again, perhaps it does open up hope for the GOP’s Rep. John Fleming to make a run. He has failed to peel enough conservatives from Kennedy and Boustany, and possibility this incident could give him an opening to do so. Because of his unwavering conservative voting record and actions in Congress, he is the only other candidate who realistically could grab enough conservatives from the pair to defeat either in a runoff. He hasn’t run the greatest campaign to do that, but as a result of this kerfuffle maybe that could change.

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