Louisiana held its general election this past weekend, and as expected, the November runoff pairs Democratic state legislator John Bel Edwards against US Sen. David Vitter, a Republican.  (In Louisiana, the two top vote-getters in the open primary advance to the runoff.) According to official returns, Edwards, the only Democrat in the field, garnered 40 percent of the vote, with Vitter far behind at 23 percent. The other two GOP candidates together drew 34 percent of the vote. If one of them had dropped out prior to Saturday’s vote, there is no question but that Vitter would have lost badly, and that the next governor, succeeding Bobby Jindal, would be a Republican. This is a deeply red state.

Vitter’s bare win, though, puts the governor’s mansion in play for the Democrats. From the Wall Street Journal:

Months ago, Mr. Vitter was atop the polls, flush with millions in campaign cash and running like an incumbent. But amid continued talk of his 2007 prostitution scandal and a drumbeat of criticism about his attack-heavy campaign tactics, Mr. Vitter’s negatives spiked among voters. One PAC has been running an “Anybody But Vitter” campaign.

Mr. Vitter, however, maintained a strong conservative base that carried him into the runoff.

The fact is, Vitter is unpopular in the state, a lot less popular than a two-term incumbent US Senator should be. He has very high negative ratings; people don’t trust his character. Politico paints the picture:

Vitter — who finished second with only 23 percent, four percentage points ahead of Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, the third-place finisher — is deeply wounded, in part driven by attacks from rivals within his own party. Just this week, Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne reignited talk of his 2007 prostitution scandal, and a Republican sheriff arrested a private investigator working for Vitter’s campaign and accused him of spying.

Polls have shown Vitter’s image rating tanking among the state’s voters, compared to the popular Edwards. But while Vitter had focused his primary campaign on his GOP rivals, the Republican Governors Association revved up its attacks on Edwards, spending $1 million in the final weeks on TV ads that call Edwards an “Obama liberal” and features audio of Edwards saying “I supported the president” four different times.

By contrast, John Bel Edwards, the Democrat, is about the best candidate his party, which is very weak in Louisiana, can hope for. He’s pro-life and pro-gun, and clean. More from Politico:

Edwards’ ads rarely mention his party affiliation and instead emphasize his most conservative policy positions. One ad features Edwards and his wife discussing their decision to keep her pregnancy after a diagnosis of spinal bfida in the womb. Their daughter, Samantha, is now in graduate school and engaged, the ad says.

“John Bel never flinched,” Edwards’ wife Donna says in the spot. “He just said, ‘No, we’re gonna love this baby no matter what.'”

Another ad highlights Edwards’ military background, with a trio of his West Point colleagues discussing why Edwards was chosen to be on a committee enforcing the school’s legendary honor code.

“John Bel Edwards doesn’t just talk about his values, he lives them every day,” one of his classmates says, providing a not-so-subtle contrast to Vitter.

What’s more, Edwards was often the most articulate legislative voice fighting Gov. Bobby Jindal these past eight years, especially on cuts to higher education. Jindal is now highly unpopular in the state. On the other hand, Vitter and Jindal are known to despise each other, but theirs is not a dispute on policy or ideology, but over Jindal’s refusal to stand with Vitter when the prostitution scandal engulfed him in 2007.

The real fight is going to be over the 34 percent of the vote that went to GOP candidates Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne, who were savaged in general election ads by Vitter, and who hit him hard right back. Neither one endorsed Vitter in their election night concession speeches. I would be surprised if Angelle endorsed Vitter at all, and very, very surprised if Dardenne did. Angelle was thought to be Jindal’s pick for his successor; Dardenne is known to have had a long-running feud with Jindal.

If Edwards can keep his turnout up — this is going to be tough — he only needs 10 percent of the anti-Vitter Republican vote to win. Though the safe money is always on a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana, I think Edwards has a good chance of making it. I personally know Dardenne voters who are already saying that they’re crossing party lines to vote for Edwards. Most of it, from what I’m told, is disgust with what they think of as David Vitter’s sleaze. Some of it, though, is being fed up with what Bobby Jindal and the Republican legislature has done to LSU and the state’s higher education system over the past eight years. This past spring, LSU had to announce a plan to declare bankruptcy — a plan that a friend of mine who works at a senior level in state government says was no bluff:

Being in a state of financial exigency means a university’s funding situation is so difficult that the viability of the entire institution is threatened. The status makes it easier for public colleges to shut down programs and lay off tenured faculty, but it also tarnishes the school’s reputation, making it harder to recruit faculty and students.

“You’ll never get any more faculty,” said [LSU Chancellor and President F. King] Alexander, if LSU pursues financial exigency.

This is a disgrace, one that is very much on the minds of middle-class people with kids in college or headed to college soon. The election will be decided on whether Vitter’s deep campaign war chest can throw enough “He’s the white Obama!” ads at Edwards to make them stick, or whether disgust with the status quo — and it is very much a Republican status quo — in Baton Rouge can tempt enough Republicans to take a chance on a conservative Democrat.

 

 

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