By Bryn Stole
BATON ROUGE, La. (Reuters) - David Duke, a former leader of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan, launched his candidacy on Friday for the U.S. Senate from Louisiana, saying white people are threatened in America and that he hears echoes of his views in Donald Trump's rhetoric.
Duke, a Republican, is a former Louisiana state legislator and unsuccessful candidate for governor who served a 15-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty in 2002 to felony charges of tax evasion and mail fraud.
Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, drew criticism in February for failing to quickly disavow support from Duke.
At a news conference in Baton Rouge after officially filing as a candidate to succeed outgoing Republican Senator David Vitter, Duke, 66, said he watched Trump's speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday in Cleveland and heard echoes of his own past political platforms.
"I don't really care what Donald Trump says about me. I respect what he's doing," Duke said.
In an online video announcing his candidacy, Duke also said, "I'm overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues that I've championed for years."
In his video, Duke said he believes in equal rights and respect for all Americans but "what makes me different is I also demand respect for the rights and heritage of European-Americans."
Duke's announcement came as Louisiana's capital grapples with racial tensions after the fatal July 5 shooting by police of a black man named Alton Sterling and the July 17 shooting deaths of three police officers by a black U.S. Marine Corps veteran.
In his comments to reporters, Duke called the Black Lives Matter protest movement that arose after a series of killings of black men by police in various U.S. cities a "terrorist group."
Duke said that "European-Americans" need a politician to fight for their interests and that white people are threatened in the United States. Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, said he was no longer affiliated with the group.
Duke's announcement drew and swift and scathing condemnation from Republican leaders and others. The Republican Party of Louisiana called Duke a "felon and hate-filled fraud" who does not embody Republican values.
Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports Republican candidates in Senate races, said Duke will never get the organization's backing.
Louisiana does not hold party primaries. Instead, candidates from all parties are placed on the same ballot. If no one wins a simple majority in the Nov. 8 election, the top two vote-getters enter a runoff.
Duke used this system to his advantage when he ran for governor in 1991 and made it to a runoff against former Governor Edwin Edwards, who had left office under a cloud of controversy for misconduct in office.
Other candidates seeking to replace Vitter in the Senate include Republican U.S. congressmen Charles Boustany and John Fleming. Vitter did not seek re-election to the Senate after a prostitution scandal helped derail his bid to become Louisiana governor.
"I strongly denounce the racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism of David Duke. His views are a relic of ancient history and are repugnant to Louisianians," Boustany said.
A spokesman for Fleming said the congressman "is wholly focused on uniting Louisiana voters of all races, creeds and religions."
In February, Trump initially blamed his failure to reject Duke's support on not having heard an interviewer clearly.
"I disavowed David Duke all weekend long, onFacebook, onTwitter, and obviously, it is never enough," Trump told NBC's "Today" show after being widely criticized.
(Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York, Susan Cornwell in Washington and Ginger Gibson in Cleveland; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Will Dunham)