Foster Campbell, a relatively unknown Democrat running for Louisiana’s second Senate seat during the state’s Saturday runoff race, has become the last Democrat left standing in the 2016 election.
Campbell’s campaign has come to represent the left’s last chance to tighten the Republican Senate majority — and give Democrats more of a chance at stopping Trump from a cakewalk on his agenda of tax cuts, Obamacare rollback, and immigration enforcement.
Campbell has raised more than $2.5 million, including donations from TV personality Chelsea Handler, actress Sally Field, and comedians Patton Oswald and Rob Delaney. Broad City stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson have gone full Campbell on their Instagram accounts.
But all this money and effort looks likely to be for naught. Campbell is very likely going to lose. He is currently polling 20 points behind his opponent — Republican John Kennedy, a moderate conservative and current state treasurer — and is facing the strength of Louisiana’s Republicans.
The question for Democrats, interestingly, is not whether Campbell loses but rather by how much.
“Let’s say he loses by 12 points — that’s a moral victory. If Campbell does better than expected, that might show that Democrats can still engage and mobilize,” Brian Brox, a political scientist at Tulane University, said.
And that is the kind of victory Democrats might desperately need in the wake of this election.
Wait, elections aren’t over?
Louisiana does its elections a little differently. The state has a “jungle” primary ballot on what is Election Day for everyone else, meaning all the candidates run on one ballot, regardless of party affiliation.
There were 24 candidates on the ballot for retired Sen. David Vitter’s seat, and it was extremely difficult for any one candidate to gain a majority of the vote. If one candidate gets the majority of the vote, he or she wins outright. But this time, no one did, so it goes to a runoff election, usually slated for about a month after Election Day.
Louisiana is a solidly red state — despite having Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu just two years ago, it voted 60-40 for Trump this year. During this year’s jungle primary, Kennedy, who has run unsuccessfully for the Senate twice before, won 25 percent of the vote, and Campbell, the Democratic utility regulator, won 17.5 percent of the vote. They will go head to head in a runoff election on December 10.
And because Election Day proved to be a shock to the system for Democrats, Campbell, an otherwise destined-to-lose candidate, has become the last hope for Democrats to stop Trump’s policies.
Campbell is running as the stop-Trump candidate — but he’s a conflicting figure in his own party
Campbell is savvily using this messaging.
“I might be the deciding vote on privatizing Social Security, privatizing Medicare. One vote can make a difference in the Senate,” Campbell said, according to the New Republic.
Nationally, his strategy is resonating; he’s getting a lot of attention and raising millions.
But in Louisiana, Campbell is a different character altogether. He attacks Kennedy for being fiscally irresponsible, says he wants to fight against erosion on Louisiana’s coasts, wants to save Medicare and Social Security, and often ends his attack ads firing off a gun.
He’s a Southern Democrat tasked with unifying a broad tent of demographics — from African Americans to millennials to the white working class. National Democrats might be less than enthused with Campbell’s gunslinging persona.
These tensions “are not reconciling well,” Brox said. “Coastal Democrats are coming in with money and mobilization efforts, but they aren’t as familiar [with the state]. It’s hard for the Democrats down here. It’s hard.”
Louisiana’s electorate is highly polarized by race, Brox explains. “It’s black and white. Black Americans are dispirited, and white voters are satisfied with Trump.”
And among the NeverTrump voters, many of them feel they have a home with Kennedy, a former Democrat, who is a more traditional conservative with relatively moderate values. According to FiveThirtyEight’s analysis, Kennedy is “far more likely than Louisiana’s other senator [Republican Bill Cassidy] to defy Trump in the upcoming Congress.”
According to recent polling from Tulane University, both Kennedy and Campbell are retaining more than 90 percent of their primary voting base, but “nearly 83 percent of Trump voters plan to vote for Kennedy while nearly 69 percent of Clinton voters plan to vote for Campbell.” Twenty-eight percent of voters for another prominent Democrat from the jungle primary, Caroline Fayard (who won 12.5 percent of the vote), said they were also going to vote Republican.
Not to mention that for Campbell, a Saturday election is not a great day when the outcome really depends on turnout. Donald Trump is scheduled to attend a get-out-the-vote event in Louisiana this Friday to boost Kennedy. Plus, Brox said, “This is the South. We have holidays coming up; we are in the midst of college football. It’s just not a good time to hold an election.”
This Senate race is a test of Democratic coalition building
Even if Campbell loses, the effort is not necessarily futile.
The narrative surrounding Clinton’s loss was largely that Democrats, despite a robust campaign operation, could not mobilize or energize behind their nominee (although she did win the popular vote by more than 2 million votes).
Hopelessness is undoubtedly a dangerous sentiment for a party that will have to do a lot of fighting over the next four years.
But if Kennedy is able to exceed expectations, it’s a sign that a national liberal fundraising effort is still a viable political strategy. Democrats are in the process of figuring out where to go from here.
Of course, there is always a risk to blowing everything on Campbell; they could instead save their money for what will undoubtedly be a more difficult midterm map in 2018.
But for heartbroken liberals still reeling from the loss on November 8, they might not be willing to wait for that fight.