It's still more than a week before Christmas, but already Santa has a present for Louisiana political consultants: a crowded field in the race to succeed Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who won't seek a third term after losing the governor's race to Democrat John Bel Edwards.
Right now most of the action is on the Republican side of the equation. Despite Edwards' phenomenal victory — and the excitement it has generated among Democrats everywhere — Louisiana remains a reliably red state in national elections. Thanks to Super PACs and the presidential race, the 2016 contest for Vitter's Senate seat will most assuredly be a national election.
According to Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics.com, nearly a dozen "serious players" are eyeing the race. The Republicans include Public Service Commissioners Scott Angelle and Eric Skrmetta, Congressmen Charles Boustany and John Fleming, state Treasurer John Kennedy, retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness (who ran third against Mary Landrieu in 2014), and state Rep. Paul Hollis of St. Tammany. Possible Democratic candidates include Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, state Sen. Gary Smith, and attorney Caroline Fayard. Former Congressman Don Cazayoux has been mentioned but says he's not interested. Also said to be looking at the race is state ATC Commissioner Troy Hebert, an independent.
If even half that crowd makes the race, it'll be a wide-open affair. While it's too early to pick a favorite, it appears likely that the field will include more Republicans than Democrats. That may be the only similarity between the upcoming Senate race and this year's contest for governor.
It's a common mistake for candidates to look at the last major election and try to replicate the winning formula in the next contest. Vitter made that mistake this year by aping Bill Cassidy's "virtual" candidacy — and anti-Obama meme — against Mary Landrieu in 2014. There are many differences between Cassidy and Vitter, and Vitter's loss should actually serve as a cautionary tale to those who think the GOP's hold on Louisiana has loosened.
I'm not predicting that Vitter's successor will be a Republican. I'm just saying that the Louisiana landscape favors a Republican over a Democrat in a statewide contest that focuses on national issues. Remember, even Edwards said his race against Vitter was "not about party," but about the candidates. Vitter was the most flawed candidate imaginable, which allowed Edwards to focus voters' attention on Vitter's character rather than his own party affiliation. Moreover, many Republicans disliked Vitter intensely and wanted him to fail. Some even opposed him publicly. That would not have happened to Jay Dardenne or Scott Angelle if either man had made the runoff against Edwards, and it's not likely to happen to a Republican in the Senate runoff next year.
In sum, the Republicans aren't saddled with another Vitter, and the Democrats don't appear to have another John Bel Edwards waiting in the wings. That said, the 2016 Senate race is just beginning to take shape, and anything can happen. That's the one constant in Louisiana politics.