NEW ORLEANS -- Buoyed by the support of a stunning 44 percent of Louisiana voters, ex-Klansman David Duke conceded defeat yesterday in his race for the U.S. Senate but proclaimed victory for his message of ending affirmative action and slashing welfare programs.
Political analysts agreed that Duke's strong showing suggested he had become a viable voice for a major segment of frustrated white voters and some suggested that his success might change the political landscape in Louisiana and beyond.
Duke, a state representative and one-time grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, won 605,681 votes in Saturday's contest. It was not enough to defeat the 18-year Democratic incumbent senator, J. Bennett Johnston, who pulled in 749,552 votes, but the controversial race was closer than most observers and polls had predicted.
Particularly notable was that Duke drew 56 percent of the white vote across the state -- considerably more than the winning candidate.
"I think it was a very powerful message -- and it's not unique to Louisiana," said Susan Howell, the director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of New Orleans, who conducted several polls on the race. "I think this type of message could fly anywhere in the country where there are tough economic times and racial tensions."
Howell said Duke's support was rooted in middle-class and working-class white voters who have become increasingly frustrated by a combination of economic recession, surging crime and the drug epidemic.
"These people are economically frustrated mostly and Duke has succeeded in focusing their frustration on the welfare class, which also has succeeded in arousing their latent racism," she said. "They spoke so loudly yesterday, and these are probably people who haven't voted in a long time, who haven't cared. Duke is their protest candidate."
Duke, who had been unwilling to give up on election night, acknowledged his defeat at a news conference yesterday morning at his campaign office in suburban Metairie. He made it clear that he -- and his message -- would carry on.
Duke said he was considering joining Louisiana's 1992 race for governor. But whatever his political future, he said, his agenda would remain the same: to stop tax increases, to provide "equal rights" to whites by eliminating affirmative action and to reduce government spending by cutting welfare programs and putting welfare recipients to work.
The national political prominence gained in the Senate campaign represents an enormous advance for the 40-year-old Duke. Grand wizard of the Klan from 1975 to 1979, he went on to found and head the National Association for the Advancement of White People. He ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1975 and 1979.