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Campbell blowout loss brings doubt to his PSC future

Last weekend’s elections produced a big and unexpected surprise in north Louisiana in a cycle that should not have produced anything unusual, perhaps foretelling the future.

As expected, Republican state Rep. Mike Johnson crushed Democrat lawyer Marshall Johnson in racking up nearly two-thirds of the vote. History tells us that Johnson can stay as long as he likes, as no incumbent has lost reelection to this Shreveport-based district since former Gov. Buddy Roemer upended former one-term Rep. Buddy Leach in 1980, which broke a six-decade stretch of successful incumbent reelections. Johnson’s rock-ribbed conservatism combined with superior analytical and rhetorical skills honed by a legal career featuring his argumentation in front of the U.S. Supreme Court will make him, absent enormous change in district attitudes, hard to dislodge.

It also came as no surprise that the area’s Democrat Public Serviced Commissioner Foster Campbell lost to Republican Treasurer John Kennedy for the open U.S. Senate seat. But the margin of his defeat and how it happened does raise some eyebrows.

Simply, Kennedy crushed Campbell, by over 20 points. Campbell won only nine parishes, with none of them having a white majority, eight of them touching the Mississippi River, and seven of them having black pluralities or majorities. Perhaps humiliatingly, he won only three – the smallest – of the 22 whole parishes in his PSC district. He could not even win Caddo Parish, and got wiped out almost 3:1 in his home parish of Bossier. His vote proportion in the district about matched his statewide number.

This result begs the question of his viability going forward. He has won three terms to the PSC, the last in 2014, and that post offers fairly significantly different dynamics than a job as senator. It has little in the way of national issues that intrude and involves more arcane and technical matters that favor incumbents, as voters with next-to-no information about such a contest give the benefit of the doubt to the present office-holder.

Yet the magnitude of Campbell’s loss in the district demonstrates that a concerted effort by a Republican could topple him. Kennedy had a lot of credibility, wide recognition, and plenty of cash – qualities none of Campbell’s previous PSC opponents in his reelection bids had. Republicans would have to find a candidate like Kennedy, probably an experienced politician that would have to a degree Kennedy’s strengths, to hope to accomplish this.

Campbell also would become more vulnerable in a 2020 match for two reasons. One, he would have turned 74 by the time of his swearing in for a fourth term. When he upset Don Owen in 2002, Owen’s age at 72 was a campaign issue. A credible, well-financed Republican a generation younger than Campbell could make this an issue again.

Also, the 2020 election cycle Campbell would encounter the less favorable dynamics seen for him this year. A GOP president will run for reelection, and the two congressional districts that essentially comprise the district along with the reelection attempt of Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy will feature runaway Republican incumbent winners. By contrast, no city contests in Shreveport (almost a quarter of the district’s voters) nor school board contests anywhere will make available high-profile Democrats local candidates who can win their contests (but Monroe, representing about 6 percent, will have city elections). This kind of environment disproportionately drives turnout higher among majority party adherents, to his disadvantage.

Of course, Campbell has stayed in office on borrowed time. Of the 24 federal and non-judicial state elective positions either statewide or majority-white district in nature, only he and ally Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards are Democrats. When he first assumed office, more than half of the then-26 were Democrats. As such, the poor performance of Campbell on this occasion may signal his imminent departure, either through retirement or defeat in four years.

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