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Johnston Beats Duke, 54-43%, in Louisiana

October 07, 1990|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — In an election seen across the nation as a test of race relations, Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston narrowly won reelection Saturday, turning aside a surprisingly stubborn challenge from state Rep. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

But Duke refused to concede defeat Saturday night, and his powerful showing immediately sparked predictions that he would bid for another high office as soon as next year.

With 98% of the precincts reporting, Johnston led Duke, who was running as a Republican, 54% to 43%, with minor candidates rounding out the field.

Under Louisiana election law, Duke and Johnston both ran in an open primary Saturday. Because Johnston won more than 50% of the vote, he will be returned to Washington without a November runoff.

Hoping to push Johnston below a majority, Duke threatened legal action to require that state officials count absentee ballots cast this week for Republican state Sen. Ben Bagert, who dropped out of the race Thursday. But Democrats insisted that his complaint has no legal basis, and that even if the absentee Bagert votes were counted Johnston would still have a majority.

"My friends, I am here to tell you tonight: We did it," Johnston told his supporters in New Orleans.

"We sent out the message all over this state, the message that's going to go all over this country. Louisiana is together, that after this campaign tonight it's united and we are determined to move this state forward," he said.

Duke's polarizing campaign against affirmative action and "the rising welfare underclass" drew enormous media attention for months, and Saturday's turnout was high, election officials said.

Many Democrats who gathered at a downtown hotel Saturday night were stunned at the closeness of the race, and the 1,000 Duke supporters gathered at a Lion's Club in the New Orleans suburb of Harahan exulted at his strong competitive finish. With more than a quarter of the state's votes cast by blacks--who voted overwhelmingly for Johnston--Duke's showing meant that he captured a clear majority of white voters, officials said.

Duke, appearing before his supporters, said Johnston would not get the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

"All I can tell you is that we have not yet begun to fight," Duke said.

With Louisiana still mired in an economic slump, Republicans began the year with high hopes of unseating Johnston, an unobtrusive, moderate Democrat in a state that likes its politics piquant.

But once Bagert, the Republican Party's endorsed candidate, failed to show sufficient strength, the GOP focus quickly shifted to stopping Duke--whose speeches have been criticized for undertones of racism and anti-Semitism.

For example, Duke has said that through welfare programs, affirmative action, hiring quotas and minority set-asides, the government has stacked the economic deck against whites. "We have massive discrimination going on. It's called affirmative action," he said.

Over the summer, the National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to recruit former Gov. David C. Treen into the race. When that failed, the party virtually abandoned Bagert. Three days before the election, eight Republican senators sent the party nominee an unmistakeable signal by endorsing Johnston. Bagert took the hint and quit the field on Thursday.

Many Johnston supporters felt the incumbent senator had already blocked Duke's rise through persistent attacks on his klan background.

Initially, Johnston ignored Duke. But, when Duke's support surged toward 30% over the summer, the senator reassessed his strategy.

In September, Johnston ran a visceral spot showing Duke leading a klan rally and chanting "White Power!" And in his final swing through the state, Johnston focused almost entirely on Duke's extremist ties. Never previously known for rhetorical passion or moral intensity, Johnston approached a rough-hewn eloquence in his plea for a repudiation of Duke.

"It is not just a political choice," he told one audience two days before the vote. "It is a moral choice. . . . If we let hate get started, if we let division get started, in this state and in this country, we're finished."

In addition to the attacks on his affiliations with the klan and neo-Nazi organizations, Duke's momentum was also slowed by disclosures that he had misrepresented his record in Vietnam, failed to file state income tax returns through the mid-1980s, anonymously co-authored a sex manual for women and had his face smoothed and contoured by plastic surgery.

Despite these damaging revelations, Duke's campaign continued to be propelled by powerful currents of racial animosity, economic discontent and hostility toward Washington. "Duke is a rebellion against what's going on in politics," said small businessman Wallace Bryan as he sat outside a polling place in Metairie, the New Orleans suburb Duke represents in the state House.

In the election's aftermath, pending Duke's challenge to Saturday's results, speculation here centers on his political future. Facing the prospect of a serious challenge to his state legislative seat, Duke is expected by many observers to instead roll right into next year's governor's race. In an interview last week, Duke said he "could see" a gubernatorial bid against Democrat Buddy Roemer, "but I'm not predicting that."

Others here say Duke may seek one of the lesser statewide offices next year or seek reelection to his state House seat as a springboard to a congressional race in 1992.

His supporters appear eager to get back into the gate. "He's used the campaign to get his name across the state," said Gaynell Koper, a Metairie secretary after voting Saturday. "I think he will run for everything that comes up for the next 10 years until he wins."

Free-lance writer Garry Boulard contributed to this story.

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