Ex-KKK leader David Duke registers to run for U.S. Senate in Louisiana

David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, announced Friday that he plans to run for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, prompting more national hand-wringing on whether Donald Trump’s inflamed rhetoric on immigrants and refugees has indirectly opened a pathway for extremists.

"I believe in equal rights for all and respect for all Americans," Duke, 66, a Holocaust denier and convicted felon, said in a video published on YouTube shortly after Trump formally accepted the Republican presidential nomination. "However, what makes me different is, I also demand respect for the rights and the heritage of European Americans."

Observers note that Duke is re-emerging on the political landscape as he senses an opportunity to ride Trump’s coattails back into the national spotlight.

“Trump has opened up a political space for these people to actually come out from under their rocks and try and have these discussions nationally,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow of the Southern Poverty Law center.

But Duke is such an extreme political figure that his support for Trump could ultimately backfire, Potok said. “One outcome is that it could hurt Donald Trump. The most likely outcome is it will have no significance."

Duke is throwing his hat into the ring at a time when Louisiana is struggling with racial conflict. Protests erupted in Baton Rouge this month after Alton Sterling, a 37-year old black man, was killed by white police officers July 5. On Sunday, a black gunman, Gavin Long, ambushed and fatally shot three law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge.

His candidacy is likely to exacerbate tension between blacks and whites in Louisiana, said Aaron Moses, 30, a small-business owner, activist and community leader in Baton Rouge. “To have someone associated with a group like the KKK in such a high position, we would absolutely not be in a position to move forward to eradicate racism and hate,” he said. “I don’t think the world can tolerate what he represents at his core.”

While Trump’s critics have warned that some of his stances — such as building a border wall between the United States and Mexico — could embolden those who hold racist views, many Republicans see Duke as a discredited figure with little chance of winning a mainstream political position.

“David Duke’s history of hate marks a dark stain on Louisiana’s past and has no place in our current conversation,” Roger Villere, the GOP’s Louisiana chairman, said in a statement. “The Republican Party of Louisiana will play an active role in opposing David Duke's candidacy.”

Ward Baker, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, also dismissed Duke.

“Louisiana voters will be able to choose from several Republican Senate candidates who will have a great impact on the Bayou State and the future of our country," he said in a statement. "David Duke is not one of them."

A former state representative, Duke was elected to the Louisiana House in 1989 to represent Metairie, an area of suburban New Orleans, for one term. Since then, he has launched several unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. Senate and governor.

Although Trump might have the ability to motivate individuals with negative opinions toward immigrants, Duke would be up against more than 20 candidates in this race, said Joshua Stockley, assistant professor of political science at University of Louisiana, Monroe.

“The average nativist, blue collar, xenophobic, angry American” was more likely, he said, to be attracted by other social conservatives, such as tea party favorite Col. Rob Maness or U.S. Rep. John Fleming.

In February, when Duke endorsed Trump for president, some criticized Trump for not immediately distancing himself from the former KKK leader.  Initially, Trump said he did not know Duke, a comment that he subsequently blamed on a “bad earpiece.” Only when pressure mounted did Trump eventually distance himself from Duke.

After Trump spoke at the Republican convention Thursday night, Duke praised the nominee’s speech: “Great Trump Speech, America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders!, Fair Trade!” he posted on Twitter. “Couldn't have said it better!”

Duke continued to praise Trump as he announced his candidacy Friday.

"I'm overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I've championed for years,” he declared in the video. 

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

July 23, 11:20 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional comment from Mark Potok.

10:10 a.m.: This article has been updated with news that Duke officially registered to run and with reaction from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

9:20 a.m.: This article has been updated with a statement from the chairman of Louisiana’s Republican Party.

8:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with information from Duke’s candidacy video.

This article was originally published at 8:40 a.m.

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