As a force in statewide Louisiana politics, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s influence may have crested with Saturday’s landslide gubernatorial defeat.
But his role on the national stage could be just beginning. With his jagged message of white middle-class resentment, Duke has emerged from this election as a national figure--a fulcrum in the politics of race.
Duke’s hopes of ever winning statewide office in Louisiana appear bleak after Saturday’s commanding victory by Democrat Edwin W. Edwards, who rolled up more votes than any gubernatorial candidate in state history to win an unprecedented fourth term, polling 61% of the 1.7 million votes cast in a record 78% turnout. But Duke has already affected the national debate over racial issues in profound and complex ways--and his impact is not likely to diminish soon, no matter what office he seeks next.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat, many here speculate that Duke’s next move will be to follow the urging of his followers and challenge President Bush in next year’s Republican primaries. Appearing on CNN’s “Newsmaker Sunday,” Duke said that he was “not inclined to run for President at this time” but added that he would keep his options open.
But even if he chooses not to mount a national campaign, Duke is changing the way the two parties talk about race, the most-lasting divide in American life. Simultaneously he may be encouraging more state-level candidates to press racial resentments, especially in the South, and discouraging the national GOP from using the subtle racial appeals that have been a cornerstone of their presidential majority for the last generation.
Though Duke’s defeat represented an emphatic personal repudiation, few here interpret it as a rejection of his racially tinged agenda of welfare reform, opposition to affirmative action and a crackdown on crime. Many voters shared the sentiments of a Metairie woman who voted against Duke Saturday because of “his background,” though she said that she thinks “everything he says is wonderful.”
In fact, even in the one-sided result Saturday, Duke--like North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in his 1990 reelection--demonstrated again the power of these themes for many white voters. Though Duke, a Republican state representative, was denounced by virtually every major political and business leader in the state and lacerated in a barrage of radio and television ads as a Nazi sympathizer who would destroy the state’s economy, he still carried 55% of the white vote, according to network exit polls.
That kind of showing--following Helms’ 1990 victory over a strong black opponent with the use of overt racial appeals--seems certain to encourage similar messages from other candidates not marked by Duke’s tattoo of extremism. In neighboring Mississippi earlier this month, Republican businessman Kirk Fordice ousted Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus after a campaign that relied on some of the same imagery.
“I shudder to think what the governor and senator candidates are going to be like in the South the next couple of election cycles,” says Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.
Often in more subtle ways, these issues have also been a crucial component of the Republican message in national politics since the 1960s--the sharpest of the wedge issues that the GOP has used to dismantle the New Deal Democratic coalition. From Richard M. Nixon’s denunciations of forced busing, to Ronald Reagan’s attacks on welfare queens, to Bush’s resolute stand against racial quotas, Republicans have consistently highlighted issues that tend to divide the white working class and middle class from blacks.
As a political tactic that has been enormously successful: Among Democratic presidential candidates since World War II, only Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 landslide has carried a majority of white voters.
But Duke has complicated that Republican strategy--by adopting it. Many analysts believe that Duke has tainted the use of these wedge issues in national politics by staining them with his racist past, even as he demonstrates their continuing power.
Democrats, who have been on the defensive about affirmative action and crime, now routinely accuse the GOP of practicing the politics of Duke when they raise those issues. Fear of that accusation, many suspect, may be one reason the White House dropped its opposition to the civil rights legislation that Bush had long denounced as a quota bill.
In that light, Duke’s role in racial politics during the 1990s could be similar to that Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy played on the politics of alleged internal Communist subversion during the 1950s. Just as McCarthy’s excesses forced the GOP to mute an issue that had brought them great political gain, fear of being linked to Duke may compel national Republicans to downplay their opposition to affirmative action--an issue on which a clear majority of white Americans side with the GOP.
“David Duke makes legitimate issues illegitimate for Republican candidates because of who he is,” acknowledges GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
As for Duke himself, despite Saturday’s loss, he retains many options when his state legislative term expires next January. He could challenge Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux next year but few give him much chance of success--especially after badly losing to a candidate with as many liabilities as Edwards. “In Louisiana, if you can’t beat a liberal guy with a shady past that blacks love you can’t beat anybody statewide,” said J. Bradford Coker, president of Mason Dixon Opinion Research, which polls in the state.
A race for Congress could be more attractive. Duke could challenge Republican Rep. Bob Livingston, who represents the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, where Duke lives. But Duke was trounced in the district by Edwards--though he carried it in last year’s Senate race.
More promising might be a race for a seat in the northern part of the state, probably against Democratic Rep. Jerry Huckaby. Duke carried much of that religious and conservative area against Edwards.
Ironically, Duke’s chances could be dramatically improved if the state--as expected--is required under the Voting Rights Act to draw a second congressional seat in which a majority of the population is black. That would leave Duke a more heavily white district in which to run, notes John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Review.
Duke also ultimately could choose to challenge Bush next spring in the GOP primaries. Or he could run as a third-party candidate in November. That would not be a surprise: In 1988 when his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination crashed on takeoff, he ran in the fall under the banner of the far-right Populist Party.
In any case there seems little doubt that Duke has viewed this race as a steppingstone to national influence. During the campaign he seemed to turn up on national programs--from “Nightline” to “Donahue"--more frequently than local ones. Almost half his financial contributors during the election were from out of state. On CNN Sunday, he declared his intention to spread his message “all over the country"--and underlined the point by twice asking listeners to write him at his Louisiana legislative office.
Even his most ardent opponents doubt that Duke will fade away any time soon. But the decisive nature of his defeat has raised the possibility that eventually he could drift back onto the fringe as what Maginnis calls a “nuisance candidate,” if he does not find another office he can win and use as a base.
Predicting David Duke’s future is like trying to pinpoint the course of a hurricane. But in Louisiana there is widespread agreement--and in many quarters unabashed relief--that the storm has now lost some of its wallop.
Special correspondent Garry Boulard in New Orleans contributed to this story.