BATON ROUGE, La., Nov. 22, 2015 – The victory of John Bel Edwards in Louisiana Saturday is the first gubernatorial victory for a Democrat in the South since Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. The last Democratic governor in the deep South was Louisiana’s Kathleen Blanco, who left office in 2008.
Edwards’ victory in Louisiana’s runoff election was an upset of sorts. A year ago, no one would have predicted the victory of a Democrat in the race, and other ambitious Louisiana Democrats who want to move into the governor’s mansion sat this campaign out to wait for a better opportunity. U.S. Sen. David Vitter was assumed to have a lock on the race.
But after Louisiana’s Oct. 24 “jungle primary,” assumptions changed. Vitter and Edwards were the two front runners of the three Republicans and one Democrat in the primary. The two other Republicans, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle were dropped from the race. Dardenne endorsed Edwards, and Angelle refused to endorse Vitter.
Edwards won endorsements from several law enforcement groups that usually endorse Republicans, such as the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the Louisiana State Troopers Association, which rarely endorses anyone. Other state Republicans were cold towards Vitter. A private investigator employed by Vitter was arrested for spying on Republican state Sen. Danny Martiny and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand.
Vitter’s negatives among state GOP leaders and voters helped bring him down. His re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, three years after a prostitution scandal, convinced many observers that the state’s voters had forgiven him and would forget about his sexual foibles. This is, after all, the state whose former Gov. Edwin Edwards once boasted that he’d be re-elected unless he was discovered in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. Corruption is a way of life here, and in the grand history of Louisiana corruption, who would care about a penchant for prostitutes?
The voters, it turns out, were not enamored of Vitter. Dardenne and Angelle described him during the first round of campaigning as “vicious” and “a liar,” and in this case, it wasn’t just campaign rhetoric; they really seemed to mean it. Vitter’s character became an issue in a state where character isn’t an issue if you’re likeable. Vitter wasn’t likeable.
His problems went deeper. Louisiana is sick and tired of current Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Louisiana is an increasingly conservative state, but Jindal never seemed to rise above pandering to that conservatism, and conservatives noticed. He became increasingly ostentatious in his religious devotion, and his every action seemed more and more calculated to appeal to a national conservative audience rather than to help his state as he set out on his bizarre and inconsequential campaign for the White House.
Rhodes Scholar Jindal became increasingly divorced from reality, and Rhodes Scholar Vitter joined him in sanctimony. Vitter’s campaign message piously appealed, God has forgiven me, and you should too. Vitter and Jindal have never been close, but they started to look the same.
Edwards’ victory is not a ringing endorsement of Edwards by Louisiana voters, nor is it a rejection of Republicans. It is a rejection of two Republicans – Jindal and Vitter – by an electorate willing to try something new. Had Angelle or Dardenne fared better than Vitter in the October primary, Louisiana would probably have a new Republican governor-elect. And no one knows that better than Edwards.
The new governor campaigned with a direct appeal to conservatives: I’m one of you. He will almost certainly expand Medicaid to cover people too poor to qualify for Obamacare subsidies but with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid. He will almost certainly have much better relations with teachers’ unions and higher education than Jindal did. But on guns and abortion, Edwards is typical of Louisiana. And on fiscal matters, he’s in a very tight box together with the GOP-dominated state legislature.
Edwards is no Nancy Pelosi or Bernie Sanders. By both inclination and necessity, he will be bipartisan. He’s a squirrel on the political highway, a Blanche DuBois depending on the kindness of Republicans. He’ll either be smartly bipartisan or he’ll be road-kill.
Edwards’ victory may cheer a Democratic Party with a seven-year unbroken record of failure in the South, but it didn’t establish a trend. He benefitted from a perfect storm. It will take a great deal of hard work and stunning good luck to leverage that storm into revived Democratic prospects in Louisiana.