It’s the morning after Election Day. The presidential circus is over, but control of the Senate has been thrown into the balance. One state holds the chamber’s fate in its hot little hands: Louisiana.
In Louisiana’s “jungle primary,” all Senate candidates, regardless of party, had appeared on the ballot on November 8. But because none cracked 50 percent, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will now take place on December 3.
This year, with 24 (!) candidates chasing an open seat, Democrats and Republicans alike had anticipated such a runoff. What they had not foreseen was that one of the two finalists would be Republican candidate David Duke, ex-grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Holocaust denier, and all around creep. (With such a crowded field, Duke didn’t need much more than 20 percent to place second.) More surprising still, the passel of Republican contenders split the vote, leaving Duke to face a Democrat in the runoff. Now the GOP faces an excruciating decision: Back the perennial poster boy for white supremacy or cede its Senate majority to the Democrats. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly taken to his bed with crippling panic attacks.
Okay, the likelihood of such an electoral Sophie’s choice seems remote at this point. A poll released last week put support for Duke at 13 percent. (Who are these people?) And while state politicos note that polls typically underreport his popularity, few expect him to be a serious contender. “I have a hard time believing his hidden vote is so large it becomes a major factor,” says Jeremy Alford, the publisher and editor of LaPolitics.com.
But the bad news for Republicans is that Duke doesn’t need decent poll numbers to inflict damage. His mere presence in the race is enough to cause the party pain—and is, in fact, already doing so.
Desperate to distance themselves from Duke, state Republican leaders and candidates issued statements denouncing him immediately after he announced his candidacy on July 22. Party officials then scrambled to derail his candidacy. At first, they thought about taking the problem to court. “We looked at litigating to get him thrown off the ballot as a Republican,” said Jason Doré, executive director of the Louisiana GOP. But it quickly became apparent, said Doré, that this would require wide-reaching statutory changes that would throw “the entire election into chaos.”
Another problem: The state party has no bylaws controlling who can run as a Republican. This must change, said Doré. The party’s governing committee will meet later this month to consider adopting a rule barring any felon from using the Republican brand. (Starting in the spring of 2003, Duke spent a year in prison for tax evasion and mail fraud. Among other naughtiness, he had solicited donations from his followers under the pretense of financial troubles and then blown the money on gambling.)
The governing committee is also exploring ways to bar someone from appearing on the ballot as a Republican if members feel that the candidate, as Doré put it, “doesn’t represent our values.” He is meeting with Louisiana’s attorney general and secretary of state this week to discuss possible options.
But none of this will have an impact on Duke’s current run. It’s too late for that, Doré acknowledged. These efforts are more about staving off future nightmares than waking up from the current one.
Meanwhile, at the parish level, Republican executive committees are trying to determine if they can exclude Duke from their endorsement meetings (at which candidates make a pitch for the committee’s backing). As for the state party’s endorsement, Doré said, “As of now, we don’t have plans for endorsing.” But he noted, “There has been some discussion of endorsing all the major Republican candidates and excluding Duke.”
“Everything possible is being done politically by Republicans to shut his mouth and shut him off,” said Bernie Pinsonat, co-founder of the independent polling firm Southern Media & Opinion Research. But he adds, “You have to be careful. You don’t want to appear to stomp on his constitutional rights and make him somebody worthy of more attention.”
The party definitely doesn’t want to give him “free ink,” stressed Doré. “We thought it was very important from outset that we came out and made it clear where we stood. But we are not going to continue to engage him every day.”
There’s no question that daily skirmishes are exactly what Duke is aiming for. On Twitter, he and his followers are constantly slamming the state party as a whole and Doré in particular. (Among other efforts, Duke’s fans have set up a parody Twitter account using Doré’s name and photo.) “The white supremacists are coming after us,” said Doré. “They are trying to draw us out.”
But Doré has a more strategic concern: Duke provides a perfect opening for Democrats looking to slap the GOP for the ugly tone and rhetoric of this election season. “The most damage he does to us is he allows the other side to use him to hurt our brand and to drive out their voters,” he said.
Perhaps the race’s most enthusiastic Duke basher thus far has been Democratic Senate candidate Caroline Fayard. Her campaign is up on the radio with ads touting Fayard as the “one person in the race who’s the direct opposite of David Duke,” she recently went on The Rachel Maddow Show to sound the Duke alarm, and she is taking every opportunity to tie Duke around the neck of the GOP’s presidential standard bearer. As Fayard sees it, Duke’s reemergence is the sad yet logical side effect of the hate-filled white-grievance politics peddled by Trump and stomached by far too many Republicans. “What’s been going on with the presidential discourse has allowed this alligator to crawl out of the swamp,” Fayard told me. “It’s been living there. We haven’t been seeing it. We haven’t been focused on it much. But now it’s back.”
As for many of Fayard’s Republican opponents: “They are in absolute denial in many respects about the tone and tenor of the rhetoric,” she said. They’re saying that they’re “taking the high road” by refusing to give Duke additional attention, she added. “But what you’re really doing is trying to make sure that all of those voters stick with you.”
For his part, Duke is desperate to link himself to Trump. He specifically credited Trump for his return to politics, claiming that he was the originator of many of the “America-first” policy ideas Trump is pushing. Duke’s campaign website features videos with titles like “Duke & Trump: The Supreme Court Does Matter” and “Never Trump & Never Duke Exposed as GOP Traitors.” And Duke’s Twitter feed is a scary mish-mash of ravings about anti-white bigotry and the decline of “Euro Americans,” broadsides against more mainstream Republicans, and lamentations about the mistreatments and misrepresentations Trump has allegedly suffered. In an August 6 tweet, Duke charged, “Never Trump traitors at the lagop.com are trying to fix the election & keep me out of the debates. Donate today.” In an August 5 interview on NPR, Duke claimed that his internal polling shows that he’ll carry 75 to 80 percent of Trump voters.
Of all the headaches Duke is causing the GOP, perhaps the most awkward is the question of his ability to drain support from other Republican candidates who share his anti-establishment views if not his racial ones. “He will siphon votes from the right side of the field,” Alford predicted. And as state political veterans can tell you, this can really screw up a race.
It’s easy (and comforting) to forget that Duke was quite the political force in his day, and that the Republican establishment has been struggling for decades to shut him down. His first campaign was as an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1988. He promptly switched to the GOP and, the following year, won a seat in the Louisiana legislature. In 1990, he tried to unseat Democratic Senator J. Bennett Johnston. In that race, the GOP’s chosen candidate, State Senator Ben Bagert, never got traction. As the election neared, party leaders worried that Bagert would siphon off enough votes to hold Johnston under 50 percent, forcing a runoff between Johnston and Duke that would humiliate the party (a version of the scenario I sketched at the top of this article). So they nudged Bagert out of the race, enabling Johnston to beat Duke on Election Day, 54 percent to 44 percent.
In 1991, Duke ran for governor. This time, he wound up in a runoff against Democrat Edwin Edwards, a former Louisiana governor with a reputation for corruption. (Thus was born the legendary Edwards campaign slogan: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.”) Edwards beat Duke handily, 61 to 39 percent—although Duke won 55 percent of the white vote. Duke ran again for the presidency in 1992 (another flop), for the Senate in 1996 (placing fourth out of nine), and for the House in 1999 (narrowly missing the runoff with 19 percent).
Nearly two decades later, Louisiana politicos express optimism that the electorate, as Pinsonat put it, “has moved way past David Duke.” Maybe. But racial tensions were high nationwide even before the July 5 fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police and the subsequent retaliatory killing of three Baton Rouge officers. And the Trump phenomenon has certainly done its part to push racial animus through the roof.
“It was a perfect storm for David Duke,” Alford said. “Between Donald Trump parroting some of his campaign themes and the racial turmoil in Baton Rouge, he must have looked at that and said, ‘It’s Duke time!’”
The GOP is busting its butt to ensure that it is, in fact, not Duke time. But America’s most famous racist is equally determined to make them pay for it every step of the way.