In the early morning hours of Nov. 9th, 2016, as the nation learned that Donald Trump had defied the odds and, despite losing by a staggering three million votes nationally, had won the Electoral College and therefore the presidency through cobbling together a 77,000 vote victory in three critical swing states- Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, those in Louisiana were reminded, once again, that a ghost continues to haunt the state’s politics.
David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was also on the ballot that November, hoping to ride Trump’s coattails into a surprise win in his third attempt for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
In 1990, the first time Duke campaigned for the Senate, he finished second, losing to J. Bennett Johnston, the incumbent Democrat, by nearly 10 points. Despite his loss, it was clear that Duke, then a freshman state representative, had become a powerful political force: He won 60% of white voters. The next year, he secured a spot in the runoff for Louisiana governor in the most consequential election in modern state history. Once again, Duke lost by a landslide, yet he still won the majority- 55%- of white voters.
Establishment Republicans were baffled and horrified by Duke’s popularity in Louisiana. Former President Ronald Reagan had recorded a phone message opposing Duke when he first emerged as a candidate for state representative in 1989, as did Reagan’s successor, then-President George H.W. Bush. Their messages fell on deaf ears. A decade later, Duke was back on the ballot, this time running for the U.S. House, and Jim Nicholson, who was then serving as the chairman of the Republican National Committee and who later served as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, pulled no punches.
Duke narrowly missed the runoff that year; ultimately, voters chose an Ivy League-educated Rhodes Scholar, a state representative named David Vitter.
By 2016, Duke was finally relegated to the fringes of state politics, even though he had again become the subject of extensive national attention. This time, the attention had nothing to do with his own campaign; Duke was back in the spotlight because of his effusive support for Donald Trump and because of Trump’s initial reluctance to denounce him.
Duke never ran a competitive campaign, which was largely propped up by out-of-state donations, but, according to Raycom, he had still pulled in enough support to qualify for their one and only televised debate. That debate was a disaster and, to many, evidence of a recklessly negligent corporate media. Raycom, which sold its interests in Louisiana in 2018, used a poll that placed Duke at 5.1% statewide to justify his inclusion; the poll had a 3.9% margin of error. Col. Rob Maness missed the cut, but David Duke made it.
During those early morning hours in November of 2016, it became clear that the poll on which Raycom relied was an imprecise snapshot of the electorate: Maness finished ahead of Duke by 1.7 points. Neither of them garnered the magic threshold of 5.0%: Duke ended with 3.0% of the vote; Maness earned 4.7%.
Still, it is worth noting that Duke’s three points comprised 58,606 votes, more than enough to deprive third-place finisher Charles Boustany a spot in the runoff. Put another way, David Duke received more votes, in total, than any of his competitors received individually in the state’s most populated parishes. 5,000 more people voted for David Duke statewide than voted in total in Rapides Parish. While he finished a distant seventh place, on a parish-by-parish basis, David Duke was undeniably a factor. (Former Congressman Joseph Cao, a Republican, was also on the ballot; Duke captured 37,000 more votes than Cao).
Last week, one of the principal architects of David Duke’s political machine was sentenced to five years in jail for operating an illegal “pill mill,” Axcess Medical Clinic, in New Orleans East. Kenny Knight had pleaded guilty more than a year ago to illegally dispensing opioids out of the clinic. At least three deaths have been associated with the clinic, according to The Advocate.
Knight had begged for leniency, but in his first major decision since taking the bench last month, U.S. District Judge Barry Ashe, a Trump appointee, was unpersuaded. Judge Ashe gave him the maximum sentence, 60 months, twice as long as Barbara Bruce, the physician who conspired with Knight, had received.
Despite his decades-long friendship and professional relationship with David Duke, Kenny Knight had dwindled into relative obscurity until he resurfaced in the wake of my report, in late December of 2014, that Congressman Steve Scalise had attended and spoken at an “international conference” hosted by the European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO), a white supremacist hate group, when Scalise was still a member of the Louisiana state legislature.
At least initially, Knight had been able to dupe some in the media into reporting that Scalise had actually attended a neighborhood association meeting, a claim that conservative pundits attempted to use to discredit my reporting or, at the very least, to create some ambiguity.
However, the neighborhood association Knight referenced does not and has never existed. It was not difficult to discover that Knight had been listed online as the hate group’s point of contact and had previously represented himself as the group’s founding treasurer in official filings with the Louisiana Secretary of State. Moreover, the group distributed a newsletter that included a photograph of Kenny Knight at the conference (Knight said he had left with Scalise after the conclusion of the neighborhood association meeting).
Steve Scalise acknowledged and apologized for his attendance and managed to hold onto his leadership position in Congress. As we now know, Kenny Knight was engaged in an extensive and illegal conspiracy to dispense opioids through a phony, cash-only medical clinic. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, David Duke continued to publicly associate himself with Kenny Knight, selling EURO t-shirts and referencing Knight on his website as recently as November of 2017. “Beyond racist activities, Duke and Knight do apparently have one thing in common,” the SPLC notes. “They’ll sell most anything to make a buck.”
Two days before Judge Ashe rendered his decision, Scott Wilfong, an official with the Louisiana Republican Party, appeared on Jim Engster’s “Talk Louisiana” and made headlines by throwing a bucket of ice cold water on the two Republicans, Eddie Rispone and Ralph Abraham, currently challenging Gov. John Bel Edwards.
“Are we done? Is this the field? I definitely know there is a movement to get another candidate in this race,” Wilfong said.
According to two sources with direct knowledge of the “movement” Wilfong referenced, while the word “movement” is an absurd exaggeration, it is true that, during the past three weeks, a small handful of Republican operatives and financial backers have been pleading with Steve Scalise to reconsider his decision to remain in leadership in Congress. Scalise had previously ruled out a run for governor, but he has not yet affirmatively dismissed the recent entreaties.
“I think he is happy to make Democrats worry about him,” one source told me, “but he doesn’t want to be governor. He wants to be Speaker of the House. The only way to do that- really- is by remaining in the House and playing the long game.”
It requires a certain type of shrewd political instincts to ascend to the speakership, and paramount to that is projecting stability and commitment to your colleagues and power and influence to your constituents back home. At 53, Steve Scalise is nearly two decades younger than the current President of the United States and 25 years younger than the current Speaker of the House. Measured against them, Scalise still has an eternity left in politics.
Scalise, who once called himself “David Duke without the baggage,” is also well-aware of the ways in which any association with Duke carries baggage. We are not yet far enough removed from the era of David Duke to dismiss his influence, even it exists only on the margins. David Duke, after all, is four years younger than the President of the United States.
“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once wrote. “It’s not even past.”