New Orleans attorney Ben Bagert was the Louisiana Republican Party’s choice to take on Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, with 451 out of 792 delegates’ votes at the state party convention. But just days before the open primary election, he dropped out.
Why? Because polls showed one of the convention’s losers heading to a runoff with the Democratic incumbent instead: former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
After withdrawing from the Senate race, Bagert was quoted as saying, “I do not want my footnote in history to read: ‘His persistence led to the election of a man who tarnished American conservatism for many years.'”
That was in 1990. Nearly twenty-five years later, Duke still threatens to tarnish American conservatism. For the long white robe of David Duke has now reached from beyond the political grave to touch House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
A liberal blog dug through the archives of racist websites and discovered that Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, had spoken to a Duke-created group in 2002.
Scalise has defended himself by telling local media, “I detest any kind of hate group.” He described any insinuation that he sympathized with Duke’s European-American Unity and Rights Organization “insulting and ludicrous.”
Louisiana Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, a black lawmaker from New Orleans, insisted, “I don’t think Steve Scalise has a racist bone in his body.”
But the Louisiana GOP long had a David Duke problem. Over the party leadership’s objections, Duke wound up the leading Republican candidate for Senate in 1990 and governor in 1991.
While Duke lost both races, he won the white vote each time. In the Senate race Bagert abandoned, Duke received 44 percent of the vote overall.
As late as 1999, Republicans feared Duke could win the congressional seat being vacated by Bob Livingston. He won 60 percent of the vote there in his failed run for governor and 54 percent during his 1990 Senate campaign.
Many leading Republicans only had so many degrees of separation from Duke. David Vitter, soon to be the state’s senior senator and a likely 2015 gubernatorial candidate, succeeded Duke in the state legislature. Former Gov. Mike Foster paid $150,000 for a Duke mailing list in 1995.
How did the loathsome Duke become a player in Louisiana politics? The most obvious reason is the state’s troubled racial history. Louisiana was one of the five states to vote for George Wallace’s segregationist presidential ticket in 1968. The state had a segregationist Democratic congressman, John Rarick, as late as the 1970s.
Since Louisiana was a Catholic enclave in the Deep South, the archbishop of New Orleans (who called for an end to segregation in the city’s Catholic churches a year before Brown vs. Board of Education) had to excommunicate recalcitrant segregationists.
But it’s also true that Duke pretended to be a reformed racist, hiding his white sheets under a business suit. “Of course I apologize for things that I have said that have been intolerant and improper,” he said in a televised debate. “And I do repudiate the Klan or any other racist organization or intolerant organization that exists in this state or in this country.”
Duke instead campaigned against tax increases, including a tax plan backed by Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer, welfare abuse, affirmative action and race-based minority set-asides in government contracts. These were issues many mainstream Republicans were afraid to touch.
It was soon obvious Duke hadn’t changed his racist and anti-Semitic views. John Danforth, Ted Stevens and Nancy Landon Kassebaum were among the Republican senators who endorsed their Democratic colleague over Duke in 1990. When Duke ran for governor in 1991, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush supported the Democrat.
“When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society,” said Bush, then president of the United States.
Duke supporters nevertheless emulated their man’s strategy of infiltrating legitimate conservative causes, like termites eating away at the foundation of a house.
Of course, many liberals conclude that conservatism is clandestinely racist and motivated by white backlash rather than genuine concern about taxes, welfare, crime or immigration. And there is some justice to the charge that conservatives have not always done enough to distance themselves from racism.
It is equally true, however, that if responsible conservatives don’t take up issues like taxes, welfare, crime or immigration, racist kooks like David Duke will instead.
Meanwhile, Duke salivates over his return to the front page. He promised in an interview to publicize the names of other politicians with whom he has ties, warning other Republicans “better be looking over their shoulders.”
David Duke is like a ghost. He’s dressed in a white costume. He’s tried to possess the Republican Party. Having failed, he can help liberals haunt it.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.