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Nation & World

Republicans Hope To Hold Senate Seat In Louisiana Runoff Election

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's a runoff election this weekend between candidates for one of Louisiana's U.S. Senate seats. And since they're competing for the last undecided seat in the chamber, they're drawing national attention. As Ryan Kailath of member station WWNO explains, Democrats around the country are pinning their hopes on a miracle in Louisiana.

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: Imagine a Super Bowl where every team in the entire NFL plays all at once. That's how statewide elections work in Louisiana. Instead of traditional primaries that narrow the field down to a few party favorites, in Louisiana, every candidate competes at once. So on Election Day, there were 24 choices for Senator, and none of them won a majority. Now, the top two contenders go into overtime.

JOHN NEELY KENNEDY: Just forget about polls. Forget about the experts. We got to get folks out to vote.

KAILATH: That's the frontrunner, Republican John Neely Kennedy. He switched parties nine years ago, a fact that his opponent, Democrat Foster Campbell, loves to bring up.

FOSTER CAMPBELL: John Kennedy is a complete phony. He's been pro-choice. Now he's pro-life. I don't know what he is today.

KAILATH: Now, an election in a fairly conservative state like this doesn't usually draw attention. But after Donald Trump won the White House, demoralized Democrats have turned to Foster Campbell. He's done the cable news shows, gotten the celebrity endorsements. Organizers hold nightly phone banks in New York and Los Angeles. And Campbell says the money is pouring in.

CAMPBELL: When we got through with the campaign, I had $8,000 left and I owed $80,000.

KAILATH: In this final stretch, he's raised more than $2.5 million.

CAMPBELL: We're tickled to death, and we're running like we're 100 points behind. But we're not.

KAILATH: But every poll here says they are double digits behind. Even still, Republicans aren't taking any chances. Vice President-elect Mike Pence came to Louisiana on Saturday to stump for his guy, and the GOP has opened 10 offices around the state. Senator Roger Wicker.

ROGER WICKER: I've seen some surprises happen. And we don't intend to be surprised this time.

KAILATH: If he wins, Kennedy would give Republicans 52 seats instead of 51. Wicker says that extra Senate seat can be crucial.

WICKER: You don't always count on getting every vote for every issue, so it's nice to have that cushion.

KAILATH: And fears of an upset notwithstanding, the cushion seems comfortable.

JIM NICKEL: Well, this is Kennedy's race to lose. I mean, Donald Trump got the most votes in the history of Louisiana less than a month ago.

KAILATH: Jim Nickel is a veteran Democratic operative in Louisiana. He says an upset would require two things - high African-American turnout for Campbell and low white turnout for Kennedy. The first one doesn't look so good. Black turnout was low during early voting. As for the white vote, Nickel compares Donald Trump to a prize deer. After those white voters landed Trump, he says, they might think their job is done.

NICKEL: Some people have gotten their trophy deer and they're sitting back on the Lazy-Boy and watching football, and some want to go get one more doe. I think there's enough of them that want one more deer. They're going to go vote for John Kennedy.

KAILATH: Nickel says there's probably no one issue or event strong enough to turn out the voters Campbell needs. And it looks like the Democratic Party may have given up this fight as well. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn't answer repeated calls. A banner on the group's website reads simply (reading) stay tuned to learn more about our efforts to take back the Senate. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.