BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's last-in-the-nation U.S. Senate race has drawn donations from desperate Democrats around the country seeking a victory in their otherwise dismal election cycle, even if they're supporting a pro-gun, anti-abortion candidate deemed such a long shot that he's getting little help from the national Democratic Party.
The Republican contender in the Dec. 10 election is banking on the popularity of Donald Trump in the state to help solidify his path to victory, which is considered all but certain barring some last-minute bombshell.
GOP state Treasurer John Kennedy is the clear front-runner in the runoff against Democrat Foster Campbell, a state utility regulator and cattle farmer. A recent poll from Baton Rouge-based Southern Media and Opinion Research showed Kennedy with a 14-point lead.
Republicans will have a slim 52-48 Senate majority next year if they hold the Louisiana seat, which is open because GOP incumbent David Vitter didn't seek re-election. The two runoff candidates, both in Louisiana politics for decades, were the top vote-getters in the November primary among 24 contenders for the seat.
A former state senator before his current elected position with the Public Service Commission, Campbell is an unabashed populist known for his rants against "Big Oil," his push to lessen the costs of prisoner phone calls and his criticism of utilities' spending on executive perks.
The north Louisiana native tells voters he "won't be in anybody's shirt pocket" in Washington. He talks openly about man-made climate change. He opposes efforts to repeal President Barack Obama's health law. He supports a minimum wage hike.
"I'm a populist. I'm not ashamed of it," he said. "I am what I am. I represent people."
He's also a decidedly Louisiana Democrat — strongly opposed to abortion, with a recent ad that showed him loading a shotgun to highlight his support for gun rights.
A former state revenue secretary and lawyer, the Oxford-educated Kennedy is in his fifth term as treasurer. In that role, he's repeatedly clashed with Louisiana's governors on financial issues, raising his own profile in the process.
Kennedy highlights his support for Trump and Campbell's vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. He says he and Campbell are as different as "gumbo and grits."
"Nobody's going to confuse the two of us," Kennedy said. "He believes government can spend the money you earn better than you can. I don't."
Kennedy pledges to guard people's money "like it was my own," and one of the regular features of his speeches involves listing government-financed contracts that he calls outrageous spending, like millions to "study the effects of Swedish massage on bunny rabbits."
Jason Stanly, a 46-year-old financial adviser, cast his ballot for Kennedy at an early voting location in Baton Rouge, saying Kennedy reflected where he thought Louisiana and the country were going politically.
At the same location, Tregg Wilson also voted for Kennedy. The 43-year-old lawyer believed Kennedy would be an independent thinker in Congress.
"I just don't trust (Campbell) to make an outside determination if a particular situation calls for it," Wilson said.
Campbell hits Kennedy for changing his positions during two prior Senate bids, running first in 2004 as a Democrat who supported John Kerry for president and the most recent two times as a Republican.
"John Kennedy's been everything but a Baptist preacher," Campbell said at one event. At another, he said: "I haven't flip-flopped from a liberal to a conservative to whatever. I've been on the same page for 40 years."
With Republicans already securing a majority in the Senate, Louisiana's race has drawn only modest attention. In many political circles, the seat already is assumed to be safely in GOP hands, since Trump won 58 percent of the vote in Louisiana.
The Republican Party has poured resources and staff into the race, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence will be the featured guest at a Saturday rally in New Orleans to support Kennedy. While the state Democratic Party is helping Campbell, the national party structure has largely ignored the race, appearing to write off Campbell's chances.
"The Democratic Party is missing in action, but that's fine because the people are in action all across America," Campbell said.
Donations for Campbell have streamed in from around the nation amid rallying cries that the seat is the last chance Democrats have to bolster resistance efforts to Trump's presidency. Actors John Leguizamo and Debra Messing have urged support for Campbell on social media.
"I think every liberal in America has sent him a check, from every disappointed Clinton supporter," Kennedy said.
Frank Johnson, 58, early voted for Campbell in response to the presidential election.
"It was more so about finding some sort of equity in the Senate, not necessarily allowing the Republican agenda to just rubber stamp every item that President-elect Trump wants to get through," said Johnson, an engineer.
Also to be settled on Louisiana's Dec. 10 ballot are the country's last two U.S. House seats.
In the 3rd District, two Republicans are vying for the job: Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and former sheriff's Capt. Clay Higgins, dubbed the "Cajun John Wayne" for his Crime Stoppers segments that drew national attention. Louisiana's 4th District race is a partisan competition between Republican state Rep. Mike Johnson and Democratic lawyer Marshall Jones.
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