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Law of the jungle: Louisiana prepares for a "jungle primary" 

The U.S. Senate race draws a record crowd of 24 candidates. Anything can happen in the Nov. 8 primary

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The election to succeed U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-Metairie, has attracted a record-setting 24 candidates for the Nov. 8 primary — nine Republicans, seven Democrats, six no-party or independent candidates and two Libertarians. The five or six best-financed candidates are bunched together atop the latest independent polls and have garnered the lion's share of voters' attention.

  The exceptionally large field has forced major candidates to focus on shoring up their geopolitical bases rather than chasing crossover votes. It also has fostered intraparty attacks — particularly among the Republicans — as candidates fight for votes among the same segments of Louisiana's conservative electorate.

  The leading GOP candidates include U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany of Lafayette, U.S. Rep. John Fleming of Minden, state Treasurer John Kennedy and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, both of Madisonville. Also garnering lots of national attention — but not nearly as much local support — is former Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi David Duke.

  Two Democrats lead their party's field — Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell of Bossier City and attorney Caroline Fayard of New Orleans.

  Also trying to make his presence felt as an independent is former state Sen. Troy Hebert of Jeanerette. He has filed two lawsuits so far over how his candidacy has been treated. One was filed — and later withdrawn — against a pollster who mistakenly identified him as a Republican, while the other was lodged against televised debate organizers for excluding him from the stage. The other candidates include former U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao, R-New Orleans, who doesn't seem to have an actual campaign structure, and 15 other lesser-knowns. Among them are dark horse Democrat Josh Pellerin, an Acadiana oil executive who still could end up spending loads of his own money, and New Orleans businessman Abhay Patel, a newcomer who has made impressive inroads with the Constitution-loving wing of the GOP. Both Pellerin and Patel have professional staffs and have executed media buys.

  "The field got carried away and nobody wanted to step out," says Roy Fletcher, a Baton Rouge media consultant. "Nobody is breaking out of the pack because no one is saying anything. Somebody is going to have to get out there and say something, do something."

  On the Republican side, Boustany, Fleming, Kennedy and Maness have lobbed verbal bombs at each other — and a super PAC supporting Kennedy has torched the TV airwaves with attack ads aimed at Boustany and Fleming. Maness and Fleming, in particular, are competing for far-right conservative voters.

  In the 2014 U.S. Senate election, Vitter helped clear the field of Republican candidates, which factored heavily into U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy's victory over then-Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat. No such mastermind is scripting this year's race in either political party, and the sheer volume of high-profile candidates is keeping many top GOP officials from making endorsements in the primary.

  Not so on the Democratic side. Fayard has the support of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Mary Landrieu, while Campbell has the all-out backing of Gov. John Bel Edwards. That split among the state's leading Democrats has made it difficult for either Fayard or Campbell, whose campaigns have a frosty relationship, to grab the party's official endorsement.

  The split loyalties in both mainline parties also make it impossible for any one candidate to reap the full benefits of coordinated campaign efforts by national Republicans or Democrats. Besides, even after committing some colossal gaffes, Donald Trump is expected to carry Louisiana easily. That will leave Senate candidates on their own to turn out their bases on Election Day.

  Many political observers have cast the Nov. 8 ballot as two mini-primaries — one for Democrats, one for Republicans and conservatives — playing out inside Louisiana's storied "jungle" primary. Unlike most states, Louisiana uses an open primary system in which all candidates run against each other on the first ballot. If no one gets more than 50 percent on Nov. 8, the top two finishers will advance to the Dec. 10 runoff, regardless of party. With so many candidates competing in the primary, a runoff is virtually a certainty, which means Louisiana will be the last state to choose its new senator.

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The term "jungle primary" is a spot-on characterization of Louisiana's no-holds-barred electoral system, which contrasts sharply with the closed primaries held almost everywhere else in America. Closed primaries are limited to candidates of a particular party.

  The Bayou State's open primary system tends to favor the extremes on opposite ends of the political spectrum and therefore often leads to a left-versus-right (Democrat-versus-Republican) showdown in the runoff. That may not be the case in the Senate race, however, because of the large field of candidates and the crowded GOP field.

  State Sen. Norby Chabert of Houma, a former political consultant, says the typical runoff scenario is "not a guarantee" this time.

  "If anything, what's happening now is actually emphasizing the jungle nature of the way we do things," he said, echoing the speculation in many quarters that, despite our state's Republican leanings, we could see an all-Democrat runoff.

  Fletcher, having reviewed the permutations, agrees. "I don't think we should ignore that possibility," he says.

  That outcome would be a nightmare for the GOP, and the chances of that nightmare becoming a reality increase as front-running Republicans play it safe on the issues in order to protect their respective bases around the state. For example, all are pro-life, pro-gun, pro-oil, anti-Obama, anti-Hillary Clinton, anti-union and, of course, pro-Trump — though some may be less enthusiastic in their support of the GOP presidential nominee after his latest pronouncements.

  The same could be said of the leading Democrats, except there are only two of them to divide the 40-42 percent of the electorate that reliably votes "D" in national elections. On the Republican side, at least four major candidates — plus at least two more with 5-8 percent of the vote on average — will be competing for the other 58-60 percent of the vote. Add to that another 5 to 8 percent gobbled up by the 15 or more also-rans and it's easy to see how "jungle" is an apt political metaphor in Louisiana this year.

  According to averages from the most recent public polls, no candidate has a more consolidated geographic base than Boustany. His hold on the Acadiana vote is the strongest in the field and has tightened significantly after extensive media buys. He has the added advantage of a congressional district that touches four of the state's seven major media markets — including two of the three largest in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Boustany's opponents face a difficult decision: either go into Acadiana and try to compete, or try to contain Boustany to Acadiana and cut off his growth elsewhere.

  They may be helped by accusations in a recently published book about a killing spree in Jefferson Davis Parish, where eight women's murders remain unsolved. Citing unnamed sources, author Ethan Brown claims in Murder in the Bayou that Boustany was a client of several murdered prostitutes, though he makes it clear the congressman is not suspected of having anything to do with their deaths. Boustany vigorously denied the accusations and has sued Brown and publisher Simon & Schuster for defamation — and accused Kennedy of promoting media coverage of Brown's allegations.

  Fleming likewise has a strong regional hold in northwest Louisiana. He also has benefited from a massive television buy. Unlike Boustany, who has doubled down on firming up his Acadiana base, Fleming has spread his media barrages from Shreveport to metro New Orleans. He aims to run the right of the rest of the field, but even that narrow patch of political real estate is crowded.

  Kennedy has a split base: the Northshore and greater Baton Rouge, though he has run statewide more than any of the other candidates.

  Fayard, from New Orleans, and Campbell, from northwest Louisiana, have very different regional strengths and have tried to gain ground on each other's home turf. Campbell's campaign gets traditional Democratic support among teacher unions, while Fayard's campaign has the backing of many young progressives in the party and pro-charter school organizations. They are competing fiercely for Democratic votes in New Orleans, where Fayard has the mayor's support. But many other politicos and groups are backing Campbell.

Headed to Election Day , candidates at every level will be competing for voters' attention against a presidential race like no other.

  "It's going to have to happen on TV, in commercials," Fletcher says. "It won't happen anywhere else."

  Such is the law of the political jungle.

Jeremy Alford is the editor and publisher of LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.

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