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What Louisiana's Senate seat means for Democrats across the country

Celebrities, Democratic heavyweights, and people from across the United States have donated to Democrat Foster Campbell's Senate campaign, in the hope that the party can close the 2016 election season with a runoff victory next week.

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U.S. Senate candidate Foster Campbell speaks during his election night party at the Hilton of Baton Rouge Capitol Center on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016 in Baton Rouge, La.

Brett Duke/NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune/AP/Fule

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Foster Campbell is gearing up for a race to the finish in Louisiana’s Senate runoff – bolstered by more than 50,000 donations from hopeful Democrats across the country.

The Democrat, a member of the Public Service Commission, is going head-to-head against Republican John Kennedy for the seat left vacant by retiring Sen. David Vitter. As the campaign enters its final week, Mr. Kennedy, who currently serves as state treasurer, is favored to win. But celebrities, Democratic heavyweights, and ordinary citizens have been pitching in to Mr. Campbell’s campaign, giving him a $2.5 million boost during the last fundraising reporting period.

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As Democrats come to terms with their losses during November’s general election, some see Louisiana’s Senate seat as a final opportunity for victory. And Campbell, though not a traditional Democrat, may be the person to pull it off, some suggest. The national party, however, is largely staying out of the race.

This is a people-powered campaign, and we’re spending every cent we get … on issues important to Louisiana voters,” Campbell said, reported Baton Rouge-based The Advocate.

Louisiana is considered solidly Republican. In the presidential election, President-elect Donald Trump carried the state by a 20-point margin, and recent polling by Southern Media and Opinion Research shows Kennedy leading by 14 points.

“There’s no question that the people of our state want to see a conservative as their voice in the US Senate,” Kennedy said, saying the campaign had enjoyed an “outpouring of support” from across the state.

But the race has provided a thread of hope for Democrats, with some framing it as the final contest of the 2016 election. (A handful of Louisiana House races will also be decided during the December 10 runoff.) That has prompted an unprecedented level of interest in the outcome. 

Campbell was recently a guest on a podcast hosted by former Obama administration staffers Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer. Actress Sally Field and comedian Patton Oswald, among others, shared a link to a third-party site where Americans can contribute to the Campbell campaign.

And people across the country have chipped in to help elect one final Democrat. Between October 20 and November 20, they gave a total of $1.7 million in small-dollar donations. That’s more than double what the Campbell campaign received in the months before the general election.

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Could the election break in Democrats’ favor? It’s unlikely, but not impossible, said Trey Ourso, a Democratic consultant.

“Voters this year have shown they like to surprise us,” he told Politico.

Republicans certainly aren’t taking any chances. Republican candidate Kennedy has tied himself closely to the president-elect, joining his calls to “drain the swamp.” Vice President-elect Mike Pence is visiting the state on Saturday to rally Trump supporters behind Kennedy. And the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has established 10 field offices in the state.

Like Kennedy, Hillary Clinton was also up in the polls before the election, Sen. Roger Wicker (R) of Mississippi, chairman of the NRSC, observed in an interview with USA TODAY.

“Turns out she didn’t win,” he said, adding, “I’m going to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to [Kennedy].”

Campbell could be just the person to pull off an upset, his supporters say. He has a history of winning over Republican-leaning voters: in 2014, he took 61 percent of the vote in his North Louisiana district, 20 percentage points better than then-Senator Mary Landrieu. And Campbell’s pro-life, pro-gun stances – not typical for a Democrat – may help him persuade Republican voters to cross party lines. 

Republicans, however, have countered that Campbell is trying to “buy” the election with outside support. 

Whatever happens in Louisiana, it won’t tip the balance of the Senate. Republicans already hold a slim majority, with 51 of the chamber’s 100 seats. But a victory could be a boost for Democrats to end this election cycle, and make winning the Senate back slightly easier come 2018. Importantly, it may also be an indication that the Democratic base remains engaged and committed to winning, as thousands of people contributed to a race outside their home state.

But a win may not be grounds for more general optimism about Democrats' prospects. The Democratic national party organization has mostly stayed out of the race, so if Campbell wins, it would not necessarily signal that Democrats have found a new strategy for winning elections. The race for chair of the Democratic National Committee continues, and a broader rethinking may take place after that election, which is scheduled for February.


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