WASHINGTON — Just days after Republican David Vitter lost the Louisiana governor’s race, focus already has shifted to the battle for his soon-to-be-vacant Senate seat.
Vitter said Saturday, immediately after losing his bid for governor to Democrat John Bel Edwards, that he will leave the Senate after completing his second term in January 2017.
The open-seat race is expected to be fiercely competitive, particularly among Republicans. The GOP field should take shape quickly now that Vitter has announced his plans.
“That clears the deck so that folks who have been thinking about it can now plan,” said Albert Samuels, a political scientist at Southern University. He said the race “could be wide open.”
Several Republicans said this week they will formally announce bids soon. They include Rep. Charles Boustany, dean of Louisiana’s House delegation, and Rep. John Fleming, a founding member of the arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, a tea party favorite who placed third in last year’s Senate race, said he will announce a decision soon.
State Treasurer John Kennedy, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2004 and 2008, also is said to be considering a run. Experts say his statewide role means he would be better positioned to compete in 2016.
Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, fresh off the campaign trail after finishing third in the gubernatorial primary, said he’s weighing a run for either the House or Senate.
Jeffrey Sadow, a political scientist at Louisiana State University at Shreveport, said a number of candidates will be “gunning” for the rare open seat.
“It will be way expensive,” he said. “I’m not sure how brutal it will be. I don’t know that any of these people have a history of really bare-knuckles campaigning. Of course, everything pales to the governor’s race — what we saw there.” Sadow was referring to the race’s nasty campaign ads, some of which hammered Vitter for his links to a Washington escort service eight years ago.
Despite Edwards’ win, which few would have predicted a year ago, Republicans have a decided electoral advantage in the increasingly red state. Seven of Louisiana’s eight members of Congress are Republican, and the party controls the state legislature.
Former Sen. Mary Landrieu, who lost her re-election bid to Republican Bill Cassidy last year, was the last Democrat elected statewide in Louisiana.
Republican Senate hopefuls have spent months, if not years, preparing for a run.
Boustany and Fleming, who easily won their 2014 re-election bids, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The money Kennedy raised while running for treasurer can’t be transferred to a Senate campaign, but experts say he can transfer it to a super PAC that could run ads supporting his candidacy.
Potential GOP candidates had long assumed Vitter would win the governor’s race (he lost to Edwards by 12 percentage points) and appoint his successor in the Senate.
But national Republicans are confident the seat will remain in GOP hands.
“There is a field of strong Republican candidates that are emerging already,” said Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “You can ask Mary Landrieu or Charlie Melancon what they think about trying to win in Louisiana.” Melancon, a former Democratic congressman, lost his 2010 bid to unseat Vitter.
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, rates the seat solidly Republican.
“Edwards is a unique candidate running in a unique race,” Duffy wrote Monday. “These circumstances aren’t going to be replicated any time soon.”
Democrats, however, hope to take advantage of Saturday’s upset and recruit a viable candidate.
“Louisiana voters (in the governor’s race) resoundingly opted for new leadership focused on leveling the playing field to help grow the middle class, and we will recruit a strong candidate who can present exactly that choice next fall,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Possible Democratic candidates include New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Foster Campbell, a public service commissioner who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2007.
Under Louisiana’s “jungle” primary system, candidates from both parties will appear on the ballot next fall. If no candidate takes more than 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will meet again in a runoff.
Duffy said the race — the sixth open-seat Senate contest this election cycle — will translate into a Republican slug-fest. She said it’s not clear that Boustany, Fleming, Kennedy or Maness — each of whom had hoped to win appointment to the seat if Vitter won the governor’s race — “have the stomach for what will be a very competitive primary.”