The crowd packed itself thick in a grimy bar in New Orleans last week. A folk and blues band was playing its songs, beloved among the city’s downriver hipster set. But the real star of the show was an aging cattle farmer from conservative northern Louisiana.
His name, which few people in the crowd knew before this year, is Foster Campbell. In a run-off election next month, he will vie for the last open U.S. Senate seat. He is a longshot—but if he can defy the latest public poll, he might also be the Democratic Party’s last best hope of slowing down Donald Trump.
Although Republicans secured control of the Senate on election night, the institution’s rules still give considerable power to the minority party. If Democrats control 49 seats instead of 48, they will be that much closer to peeling off Republicans to stop some of Trump’s most controversial agenda items.
Or as Campbell puts it, “I might be the deciding vote on privatizing Social Security, privatizing Medicare. One vote can make a difference in the Senate.”
As Republicans prepare to to take over the presidency and both chambers of Congress for the first time since 2007, out-of-state liberals are paying attention to Campbell. Last week he appeared on Rachel Maddow’s show, and a Medium post about his campaign, called “The 2016 Election Isn’t Over Yet,” has been shared hundreds of times. Campbell says he has seen a surge in out-of-state donations since Nov. 8, although he declined to provide an exact figure.
But there is one area where help is lacking. Asked whether the national party has chipped in, Campbell says, “Not really.”
Campbell, who resembles a 69-year-old version of Dwight Schrute from The Office, dabbles in real estate and insurance in addition to his cattle duties. He was a longtime state senator before he was elected as a state utility regulator. Along the way, he lost a governor’s race to Bobby Jindal but gained a reputation as a champion of the little man—a stance that has played well for Democrats in Louisiana since Huey Long’s days. His thick north Louisiana accent doesn’t hurt.
Campbell won plaudits for fighting against exorbitant prison phone call fees as a public service commissioner. And he won more cheers from liberals when he became the only major Senate candidate in Louisiana this year to firmly state his concern about man-made climate change.
In other ways, Campbell is an odd fit for national Democrats. He generally opposes abortion rights. He hemmed and hawed on whether he supported Hillary Clinton during his campaign. And he is also a strong opponent of gun control. In his latest TV spot he blasts one of his many shotguns to prove the point, copying a move from Joe Manchin’s famous 2010 Senate ad.
“We’re a hunting family, and I didn’t want to let people say just because you’re a Democrat you’re against guns,” Campbell says.
Liberals’ sudden show of support for Campbell has some of the desperation of the Change.org petition, now 4.6 million signatures strong, that calls on the Electoral College to make Hillary Clinton president after all. But Campbell represents a more feasible outlet for their energy.
As recently as 2015, a Democrat represented Louisiana in the Senate. In last year’s governor’s race a Democratic state representative from a small town in Tangipahoa Parish managed to beat U.S. Senator David Vitter, whose name was still badly tarnished from a 2007 prostitution scandal.
Unfortunately for Campbell, as national elections grow more influenced by partisanship, it is increasingly rare for Democrats to represent red states in Congress. And even worse, his opponent’s number never showed up in the D.C. Madam’s phone book. Instead, state Treasurer John Kennedy is recycling Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.”
“After all, we do know a thing or two about swamps in Louisiana,” Kennedy jokes in his latest TV spot.
Campbell thanks the aggrieved out-of-state Clinton supporters for their donations. But he is adamant that his campaign is not a second referendum on the presidential race. In an interview, he repeats himself three times when asked whether his race is a chance to redeem Clinton’s loss.
“No, no, no,” he says.
For Kennedy, running as Donald’s man on the bayou represents a safe bet in a state where Trump walloped Clinton, 58 to 38 percent. Kennedy himself got 25 percent of the vote in Louisiana’s unusual “jungle primary,” with many voters opting for more conservative Republicans. Campbell got 17 percent.
Campbell’s path to victory is far more elusive than Kennedy’s. He must convince dejected Democrats to come out to the polls again, while persuading Trump’s exuberant supporters to switch sides. The task of energizing voters is complicated by the fact that Campbell would only represent a larger minority for Senate Democrats.
“It’s easy to put on a bumper sticker, ‘Vote for Campbell to win the majority,’” says Robert Mann, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University. “It’s hard to explain why you should make things a little bit closer so we can occasionally pluck off Susan Collins.”
Campbell is nevertheless optimistic that Democrats will show up on Dec. 10. He discounts the most recent independent public opinion poll, conducted by a GOP firm, which shows him trailing badly.
“We wouldn’t be in here fighting like hell if we thought we were going to get beat,” Campbell says.
That packed fundraising show at that grimy dive bar last week suggests that some people are mad enough to vote. On Saturday, a handful of volunteers showed up at Campbell’s New Orleans campaign office to call likely voters. Several of them described their decision to volunteer as a reaction to Trump’s shocking, wrenching win. Rather than wallow in their despair, they decided to latch onto the last Democrat left fighting.
Up until election day, Trevor Scott was the Brooklyn field director for Clinton’s campaign. The morning after he watched in disbelief as she gave her concession speech. A week after that, with a Clinton-Kaine campaign sticker still on his laptop, he flew down to New Orleans.
“Otherwise I’d just be sitting down on the couch for four weeks, twiddling my thumbs, wondering what happened,” Scott says.
Raymond Hough, a cab driver in New Orleans who also hosts a jazz show on a community radio station, says the morning after the election he felt “deep gloom and depression.”
But Hough collected himself. On Friday he spun a protest song set on his WWOZ show. On Saturday he volunteered for Campbell.
“The person who was elected as president has re-energized me and turned me into an activist,” says Hough, who refused to utter Trump’s name. “The nation is in a mess, and we need all the help we can get.”