Repub John Kennedy Wins La. Senate Race, Giving GOP 52 Senate Seats

President-elect Donald Trump (L) campaigns for Republican Senate candidate John Kennedy (R) at a rally in Baton Rouge, La., on Friday. (Reuters/Mike Segar)
President-elect Donald Trump (L) campaigns for Republican Senate candidate John Kennedy (R) at a rally in Baton Rouge, La., on Friday. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

Louisiana voters Saturday chose to send Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy to the U.S. Senate, filling the nation’s last Senate seat and giving the GOP a 52-48 edge in the chamber when the new term begins in January.

Kennedy had always been the runoff election’s front-runner in a state that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump. He defeated Democrat Foster Campbell, a state utility regulator whose chances were seen as such a long-shot that national Democratic organizations offered little assistance to Campbell’s campaign.

Voters also filled two open U.S. House seats Saturday, choosing Republican Clay Higgins, a former sheriff’s captain, in the 3rd District representing southwest and south-central Louisiana; and Republican state Rep. Mike Johnson in the 4th District covering northwest Louisiana.

Louisiana has an open primary system in which all candidates run against each other. In the contests for the open congressional seats, the November primary ballots were packed with contenders, so the top two vote-getters advanced to Saturday’s runoff.

The Senate runoff drew national attention, with President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence each traveling to Louisiana to rally for Kennedy. The national GOP provided resources and staff into assisting Kennedy’s campaign, while national Democratic organizations largely abandoned Campbell, assuming an easy win for Republicans.

Though Campbell’s chance appeared slim, donations for his campaign had poured in from around the country, and leftists had championed his candidacy as a way to bolster resistance to the Trump presidency.

The Senate seat was open because Republican David Vitter decided against running for a third term after losing the governor’s race last year. Both men vying for the seat were well-known figures, in Louisiana politics for decades.

Kennedy, an Oxford-educated lawyer from south Louisiana, is in his fifth term as treasurer, a role in which he repeatedly drew headlines for financial clashes with Louisiana’s governors.

He sprinkled speeches with examples of government-financed contracts he considered outrageous, like money “to study the effects of Swedish massage on bunny rabbits.” In his campaign, he highlighted his support for Trump and his opposition to Obamacare.

“The good thing about this race is that nobody’s going to confuse the two of us,” Kennedy said of his opponent. “He’s a liberal. I’m a conservative. He supported (Hillary) Clinton. I supported Mr. Trump. He believes government can spend the money you earn better than you can. I don’t.”

Campbell, a cattle farmer and former state senator from north Louisiana, is a populist who railed against “Big Oil,” wants to increase the minimum wage and talks openly about man-made climate change. He pledged that in Washington he “won’t be in anybody’s shirt pocket.” A Louisiana Democrat, Campbell also had some socially conservative stances.

Kennedy hit Campbell for supporting Clinton. Campbell called Kennedy a flip-flopper during prior Senate bids, because the treasurer ran in 2004 as a liberal Democrat and the most recent two times as a conservative Republican.

In the 3rd District race, the two Republicans have traded blistering attacks: Scott Angelle, a member of the Public Service Commission and well-known public official for nearly 30 years, and Clay Higgins, a local celebrity known for attention-grabbing videos he filmed when he was a sheriff’s captain.

Angelle had been the presumed front-runner, but Higgins capitalized on disenchantment with career politicians to defeat Angelle with only a fraction of the latter’s money and a bare-bones organization.

In the 4th District, Republican state Rep. Mike Johnson defeated Democrat Marshall Jones in a competition that was less attack-laden.

Johnson focused on his work on conservative issues as a constitutional attorney and in his two years as a state lawmaker. Jones, also a lawyer, downplayed his party affiliation, running as a socially conservative Democrat who could work with Trump.

The House seats were open because Republicans Charles Boustany and John Fleming unsuccessfully sought the Senate seat instead of re-election.