It doesn't have to be so red.

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Democrats Can't Write Off the Last Senate Race

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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 The 2016 elections aren't quite over yet. No, I'm not talking about the millions of ballots still being counted that will eventually lock in Donald Trump's exact Electoral College win while continuing to increase Hillary Clinton's raw vote lead above the 1.2 million where it currently stands, although those are important too. No, I'm talking about the U.S. Senate runoff election in Louisiana, scheduled for Dec. 10.

Louisiana's unusual electoral system features an "all comers" election on Nov. 8, followed by a runoff between the top two finishers, regardless of party. This year, there was no strong favorite for the open senate seat, and Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy and Democratic Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell wound up in the runoff, despite taking only 25 percent and 17 percent of the vote, respectively.

Kennedy is certainly a heavy favorite to win. Louisiana has become a very Republican state, with Trump winning by a whopping 20 percentage points. Nine Republican candidates combined for 61 percent of the vote in the Nov. 8 senate blanket primary, while seven Democrats received only 34 percent of the vote. Local experts give Kennedy a large advantage.

On the other hand ... Democrat John Bel Edwards easily won Louisiana's gubernatorial election just last year. Runoff elections are typically very-low-turnout affairs, where strong passions on one side can produce unusual outcomes -- and it's certainly possible that a reaction for or against Trump's election could produce an unexpected one-sided turnout surge. 

National Democrats are apparently playing down the election, which has received practically no attention at all in the national media. I think that's an odd choice. 

For one thing, the seat is certainly extremely important just in terms of the Senate balance. Republicans have ambitious plans but a slim margin in the Senate to make them into reality. In the Senate, every seat is important: The chances of passing a major health-insurance-reform bill or anything else -- or the ability to eliminate the filibuster -- are much stronger with 52 seats (plus the tie-breaker vote from the vice-president) than with 51 seats. And that's just for now, of course; the chosen candidate in Louisiana receives a six-year term, and we have no way of knowing whether we'll have a one-seat margin in Senate control at some point within that timeline.

Even if Democrats lose, however, a surprisingly close result would help them make the case that Trump's victory was hardly a result of the overwhelming approval of the voters. Of course, part of that is that he'll wind up losing the popular vote by some 2 million or more. But a story out of Louisiana about Republican weakness would reinforce the case that Trump isn't very popular, just as the Republican victory in a Massachusetts Senate election in January 2010 hurt Barack Obama's ability to convince anyone of his own popularity.

For Democrats, too, putting up a fight in this Louisiana election could send an important message to Democratic activists and voters that congressional elections matter -- and therefore so do midterm elections two years from now. And it would be a practical way to make use of the energies released by Clinton's defeat. 

There's a risk, of course. If Democrats elevate this election into a bigger story but then lose, perhaps badly, it would be a good story for Republicans and for the new Trump presidency. But this is a case where media norms work in Democrats' favor: An easy Republican win in a very Republican state at the end of a good Republican year will be a "dog bites man" story no matter how much publicity it gets before the election, while even a relatively close race should produce positive stories for Democrats. "Man Bites Dog"? "Democrat Wins in Louisiana"? Now you're talking.

There's little risk for Democrats if they go all-out on this Senate runoff, and there's plenty to gain.

  1. And, yes, this argument also applies to any special elections which might be produced if Trump selects a member of Congress for his administration (House vacancies are all filled by special elections; Senate vacancies depend on state law).

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net