Politics

Former Louisiana Democrat Poised to Become Anti-Establishment GOP Senator

Republican state Treasurer John Kennedy is favored to win Saturday runoff

Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy, left, greets a fan at a tailgate party before a football game between Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama in Baton Rouge, La., on Nov. 5. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Louisiana state Treasurer John Kennedy has a distinct advantage over 2016’s other Republican Senate candidates.

As the front-runner in the Louisiana Senate runoff this Saturday — the last Senate election of the year — Kennedy knows who’s going to occupy the White House in January. And that’s freed him up to wrap his arms around President-elect Donald Trump. 

“I supported our new president from Day One,” he said in a TV ad after Trump carried Louisiana by 20 points.  

The former Democrat is looking to ride Trump’s coattails to Washington — a luxury many of this year’s Republicans didn’t know they’d have until election night. 

“I’ll fit in just fine, but I’ve got to get there,” Kennedy said in a Monday interview, deflecting questions about where he sees himself within the Republican conference.

Broad support

Since the Nov. 8 jungle primary, in which he finished first among 24 candidates, Kennedy has received donations from a wide spectrum of Republicans, ranging from the conservative group Tea Party Forward and plenty of sitting GOP senators, including moderate Maine Sen. Susan Collins.  

He chalks up Trump’s victory to the same forces that helped him defeat two sitting congressmen in the primary. “This last election, my election,” he said. “It really hasn’t been about the candidates, it’s been about change.”

Kennedy’s facing off against Democratic Public Services Commissioner Foster Campbell, who finished second in the primary. As the Democrats’ last chance to redeem themselves in a bruising election year, Campbell is flush with cash and feeling emboldened by Democrat John Bel Edwards’ 2015 victory in the governor’s race. Even if Campbell won, though, Republicans would still control the Senate.

Kennedy paints the differences between himself and Campbell in broad, clichéed strokes. “I don’t think you could have picked two candidates this side of 24 who are more unalike,” he said, referring to a state highway. “Foster is Democrat, I’m a Republican. He’s liberal and I’m a conservative. He supported Hillary Clinton. I supported Donald Trump. I believe in more freedom, he believes in more free stuff.”

Kennedy is “almost reflexively anti-establishment,” said Timmy Teepell, a Republican consultant in Louisiana. He’s less likely to work within the system than some previous Louisiana senators, Teepell said, and in that respect, he’s similar in personality to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Utah Sen. Mike Lee. The difference is that Kennedy is driven by populism more than conservative ideology. 

Democratic roots

But Kennedy isn’t all outsider Republican. He’s run for Senate unsuccessfully twice before. In 2004, when he backed John Kerry for president, he was the liberal Democrat in the Senate primary. He lost. Courted by Sen. David Vitter and George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, Kennedy switched parties in 2007. In 2008, he challenged Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, losing by 6 points.

“He saw, to his credit, what was coming,” said a Democratic operative  who’s worked in Louisiana. “The state was getting redder.”

The way Kennedy tells it, the Democratic Party abandoned him and much of the South. “I believe that the primary role of the government is to protect people and not run their lives. You used to be able to believe that in the Democratic Party,” he said. “You can’t anymore.”

In one of his first political gigs, as special counsel for then-Democratic Gov. Buddy Roemer, Kennedy defended the governor’s veto of an anti-abortion bill. But he maintains that defending the governor was his job and that he’s always been anti-abortion rights.

He’s a fiscal hawk who’s made dismantling the 2010 health care law one of his main campaign objectives. “I don’t mean any disrespect, but Obamacare sucks,” he said in a TV ad. In a recent debate, he adopted former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn’s line about federal funds paying for rabbit massages to make a point about wasteful spending. 

“I have a reputation for taking on governors a lot more powerful than me,” Kennedy said. He criticized Louisiana’s former GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal for spending money the state didn’t have. 

Kennedy’s political evolution is a big part of who he is and may suggest a proclivity for working with both sides of the aisle in Congress. “John Kennedy is nothing if not flexible,” the Democratic operative said. Asked in what areas he could work with Democrats, Kennedy said, “On everything.”

Flood insurance — namely keeping down costs for his flood-ravaged state — is his “Day One” priority.  He’s not yet convinced fossil fuels are behind the warming of the Earth’s temperatures.

After that, he said his priority will be eliminating regulations that he thinks hurt the economy. He supports the president-elect’s proposal to get rid of two existing regulations each time a new one is created. 

Kennedy said he approves of Trump’s Cabinet nominations so far. Trump endorsed Kennedy last Saturday, while Vice President-elect Mike Pence campaigned with him in New Orleans for the start of early voting. 

Asked whether he disagreed with any of Trump’s comments during the campaign, Kennedy demurred. 

“I’m not going to go through every single thing he’s said or done. I don’t have the time. I don’t think that’s a reasonable question,” he said. “I’m my own person and I’m running my own race.”

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