Prostitution fight tightens Louisiana Senate race

Prostitution fight tightens Louisiana Senate race
© Greg Nash

Louisiana's Senate race is shaping up to be a tight five-person contest with three Republicans taking on two Democrats as the Nov. 8 “jungle primary” heads into the home stretch.

The wild race for Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterRed-state governor races put both parties on edge Louisiana Republicans score big legislative wins Trump calls on Republicans to vote out Democratic Louisiana governor amid GOP infighting MORE’s seat has been ramping up and has featured prostitution allegations, sharp rhetoric from two members of Congress and the dramatic entry of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

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With candidates running in the primary regardless of party, Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy sits at the top of the pack.

Not far behind is Rep. Charles BoustanyCharles William BoustanyMarch tariff increase would cost 934K jobs, advocacy group says Bottom Line On The Money: US adds 155k jobs in November | Unemployment holds at 3.7 percent | Wage growth strengthening | Trump signs stopgap spending bill delaying shutdown MORE (R), who faced unsubstantiated allegations that surfaced last month claiming he was a client of a local prostitution hub.

So far the controversy doesn't appear to have hampered Boustany, who denied the claims and has seen his poll numbers climb since his wife defended him.

Two Democrats follow behind Kennedy and Boustany as they engage in a fierce battle to shore up their base: Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell and attorney Caroline Fayard. Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) has backed Campbell, but an endorsement from New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) for Fayard has given her boost.

A recent poll shows Rep. John FlemingJohn Calvin FlemingThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems aim to end anti-Semitism controversy with vote today Former congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles Overnight Energy: Watchdog opens investigation into Interior chief | Judge halts Pruitt truck pollution rule decision | Winners, losers in EPA, Interior spending bill amendments MORE (R) narrowly trailing the two leading Democrats.

“The outcome is anyone’s guess,” said Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat, who runs Southern Media & Opinion Research. All five “are good candidates.”

Kennedy entered the race with high name recognition as a statewide officeholder. But with 24 candidates and a handful within striking distance of each other, it’s highly unlikely any will garner 50 percent of the vote to avoid the Dec. 10 runoff.

As he faces two sitting congressmen — Boustany and Fleming — Kennedy believes that the “genesis” of voter dissatisfaction stems from the complacency of members from both sides of the aisle.

“My state is very unhappy with President Obama ... and they’re very unhappy with the entire United States Congress,” Kennedy said in a phone interview. “They feel like both the Democrats and the Republicans have just sat back and let President Obama do it, and I agree with them.”

The race took an unexpected turn when a bombshell story reported that journalist Ethan Brown published a book last month investigating the murders of eight Louisiana prostitutes.

Brown cited unnamed sources who say Boustany was a client of some, though it doesn’t link him to the murders. His wife emailed reporters debunking the “false attacks.” 

Boustany called the claims “total, despicable, scurrilous lies,” and this week filed a defamation lawsuit against the author. He trained his fire on Kennedy, accusing him of peddling the rumors. Kennedy and Fleming’s campaigns have said they had no involvement in the book.

While strategists say the controversy attracted a couple of weeks of attention, it didn’t seem to hurt Boustany. In fact, an independent poll from late September conducted by Pinsonat found Boustany only trailing behind Kennedy by 2 points. That same poll from May had Kennedy with a 20-point edge over the congressman.

Louisiana political observers say the allegations seem to have faded from the headlines and note that unlike Vitter — subject to blaring reports when his phone number was included in the telephone records of an escort service — the sources in the book are all unnamed.

“Also unlike Vitter, Boustany has never been implicated in anything remotely like this in the past,” said Clancy DuBos, political editor at Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. “It kind of comes out of the blue during the election.”

Kennedy said he expected the race to tighten especially since he was last to go on the air with ads of the three leading Republicans. But, he added, internal polls have shown growing support for him since he started running TV ads two weeks ago.

“We made a strategic decision not to start advertising until six weeks out,” Kennedy said, noting that he wanted to hold off because of the heavy flooding in the state in August from intense rainfall.

Fleming has cast himself as the only anti-establishment candidate in the race, contrasting himself to Boustany, who worked closely with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Krystal Ball issues warning to Biden supporters Saagar Enjeti: Crenshaw's conservatism will doom future of GOP MORE (R-Wis.) on the Ways and Means Committee, and is viewed as an ally of GOP leadership.

In an interview with The Hill, Fleming argued that the same voters who propelled Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE to the Republican presidential nomination will boost his own outsider campaign.

The conservative flame-thrower helped found the far-right Freedom Caucus that ousted former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director MORE last year. And Fleming was at the center of the caucus's push this summer to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, serving up red meat for conservative voters back home in the Pelican State.

"What distinguishes me from [Boustany] is the fact that I’m a conservative Republican and a change agent in Washington," said Fleming, who has served in Congress since 2009, while Boustany has served since 2005.

"So I would pretty much put [the candidates] together as a group: They are establishment Democrats and Republicans looking for bigger government. I, on the other hand, am for limited government and for real change."

Boustany, however, said Trump has not been a factor in the race since all the GOP Senate candidates have endorsed the Republican nominee.

And he suggested that Fleming might be "misreading" voter sentiment in 2016, saying Americans are looking for a leader rather than just an outsider.

"They don’t just want to see showboating and hot air," Boustany told The Hill. “I'm not running on platitudes. I’m running on real substance. That's why we’re seeing our message resonate across the state. I think Mr. Fleming is misreading the public’s mood."

Adding to the drama of the allegations about Boustany and the attacks between Boustany and Fleming is the late July entry into the race by former KKK grand wizard David Duke.

While Duke made national headlines with his announcement, strategists chalk up his candidacy as “a non-entity” in Louisiana.

“The only time anyone ever talks about David Duke and his candidacy for the U.S. Senate is when national Democrats try to pin him on to Donald Trump,” said Bob Mann, professor at Louisiana State University. “He is much more a factor nationally than he is in Louisiana.”

Meanwhile, Democrats feel emboldened after Bel Edwards defeated Vitter for governor in 2015. But it’s still an uphill battle for the party in a deep red state that Trump is expected to comfortably win. State observers say the gap between the two Democrats is also closing and find that Campbell and Fayard are splitting their base’s vote.

Strategists say both Democrats will need to make inroads with African-American voters, particularly in New Orleans, which many say are divided between them. Campbell’s campaign believes they have the upper hand with these voters, even in Fayard’s own backyard.

“We have unified the African-American base. The Orleans Parish Democrats even endorsed Campbell over Fayard, despite the fact that she lives in Orleans Parish,” said spokesman Eric Foglesong.

But Fayard’s campaign feels confident she can break into one of the runoff spots, citing recent independent polls showing her in the top three along with the two leading Republicans.

“The rest of the field is fading, with our closest Democratic competitor stuck in the single digits since early this summer,” spokesman Beau Tidwell said.

The unpredictability and tightening of the race can yield a variety of outcomes in the runoff, though the likely scenario being a candidate from each party. But strategists aren’t counting out the possibility of intra-party battles.

“Whatever scenario you paint of these five candidates, it’s possible to have two Democrats, two Republicans, and a Republican-Democrat,” Pinsonat said. “Anything is possible with that many people so close together.”