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Louisiana Elects a Democratic Governor

John Bel Edwards whips David Vitter. Start of something new down South?
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First, the big news from Louisiana tonight: the LSU Tigers had their heads handed to them by Ole Miss. It’s the Tigers’ third SEC loss, and their third loss in a row. The last time that happened, Bill Clinton was in the White House. The Tigers’ astonishing collapse has people talking about Coach Les Miles losing his job after this season. Gloom, despair, and agony on us!

In other news, Democrat John Bel Edwards soundly beat Republican David Vitter to win the governor’s race. Edwards is a Democratic state legislator; Vitter, a Republican, is a sitting U.S. Senator. Louisiana is a very Republican state. If you had said even a few months ago that this is how the governor’s race was going to turn out, nobody would have believed you.

Vitter had a commanding lead in fundraising, and was the heavy favorite going into the campaign season. He was assumed to have put down with his 2010 re-election any political problems with his character (the prostitution scandal). Yes, outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal is hugely unpopular in the state, but Vitter and Jindal have long been enemies, allegedly because of Jindal’s refusal to stand up for Vitter when news broke of his involvement with hookers. It didn’t seem that Jindal would be a drag on Vitter; on the other hand, President Obama’s deep unpopularity in the state was expected to hurt Edwards.

Things didn’t turn out that way.

La. Gov-elect John Bel Edwards (La. Legislature)
La. Gov-elect John Bel Edwards (La. Legislature)

The runoff turned into a referendum on Vitter’s character, which turned out to be a big issue after all. Had either of the two other Republicans in the October open primary — Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle — made it into tonight’s runoff, Louisiana would likely have elected another Republican governor tonight. Vitter demolished Dardenne and Angelle with punishing, ugly ads in the first go-round; their combined vote was greater than Vitter’s, but the system rewards the top two vote-getters. Nevertheless, Vitter caused so much bitterness in his GOP rivals that Dardenne endorsed Edwards, and Angelle endorsed no one (read: refused to endorse Vitter). This was a clear sign that there would be a strong anti-Vitter vote among Republicans in the runoff.

Plus, my guess is that after eight years of Jindal, and with the state in such bad fiscal shape, people were open to change — even if that meant voting Democratic. It so happened that John Bel Edwards is probably the only Democrat who could have won a statewide race in Louisiana. He has a solid reputation; a friend of mine here in West Feliciana told me that our state representative, a Republican, called Edwards “the most honorable man in the legislature.”

But he also hit very hard, and arguably below the belt, shortly into the runoff period, with an attack ad so devastating that Vitter never recovered from it:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tefrYRPzcFU?rel=0&w=525&h=330]

The surprising thing about this ad was that yep, Edwards went there — and didn’t sit around waiting for Vitter to release his own hounds first.

And there’s this (from the WaPo):

From the start of his run, Edwards knew any chance of victory hinged on distinguishing himself from the prevailing image of Democrats among voters. In meetings with small groups in rural parishes, he touted his opposition to abortion and strong support for gun ownership. He had fellow members of West Point class speak about his character and values.

“We knew he had the best story to tell of anyone in the race,” said Eric LaFleur, a Democratic state senator from Ville Platte and an early Edwards supporter. “The only question was, would anyone be able to hear it or would it get drowned out?”

Karen Carter Petersen, chairman of the state Democratic Party, called Edwards an “amazing candidate” who connected with voters through his personal integrity. “He’s lived his values,” Petersen said, adding that the party’s decision to coalesce around Edwards as a candidate in March helped clear the way for his strong run. “We’ve worked to rebuild and rebrand the party from the bottom up,” she said, “and focus on those policies where we can all agree.”

In many ways, Edwards is a throwback to a previous generation of Southern Democrats, many of whom served in the military and touted traditional values. Through the efforts of the Democratic Leadership Council, many of them — including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Chuck Robb and Sam Nunn — went on to national success.

He’s the kind of Democrat many conservatives feel comfortable voting for. On my way to cast my vote this afternoon, I ran into a very, very conservative friend — a rural, older white man — and expected him to tell me that I needed to vote Vitter. Instead, he said he was going to vote Edwards. For him, it was all about Vitter’s character. He said something Trumpy about how all politicians are no damn good, but he couldn’t stand looking at that Vitter, who struck him as shifty and untrustworthy. It mattered a lot to this voter that Edwards had served with distinction in the military, and that Edwards was pro-gun. I bet my friend can’t remember the last Democrat he voted for. It was only a single conversation, but that kind of sentiment coming from that particular man told me that Edwards was going to win this thing.

Now, are there any broader lessons for national Democrats to learn from this surprise victory? I wish there were, but I’m doubtful on that front.

For one, the stars aligned just right for the Democratic candidate this year. You couldn’t have had a better one for a conservative Southern state than Edwards. And he was blessed to have as his opponent a deeply compromised Republican. True, Louisianians are accustomed to voting for politicians with moral baggage, but unlike the other Edwards (Edwin W., no relation to the incoming governor), Vitter is not a charismatic man. He easily run re-election in 2010 because his Democratic opponent wasn’t very attractive either. Edwards was a different kind of Democrat — and Jindal’s popularity hadn’t nosedived, leaving people ready for a change. An added factor helping Edwards: the state legislature is in Republican hands, which will restrain his freedom of action. This is another thing that made it safer for Republicans to vote for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Anyway, I hope that Edwards’ victory tonight gives national Democrats something to think about, but at this point, it looks more like a fluke than the start of a new trend. Remember, if either of the other two Republicans in the primary election had been on the ballot in tonight’s runoff, the GOP would probably still have held the governor’s office here. But who knows what’s coming from Edwards? A friend with lots of experience with Louisiana politics told me this week that Edwards is a pragmatist who knows how to get things done, and how to work with people, while Vitter is an arrogant man who makes enemies easily. “What they say about him being ‘Jindal on steroids’ is true,” said my friend. If Edwards can get the legislature behind him and pull the state out of its dismal fiscal situation, he could have a real future beyond Louisiana.

By the way, Vitter announced tonight that he was not going to run for re-election after his Senate term expires next year. I don’t think there’s another Democrat at the state level who could make a credible run at that office. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has been leading a campaign to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle in his city as part of a de-Confederatization campaign, would get pummeled statewide. Chances are next year’s Senate race will follow the pattern of the governor’s race: a lone Democrat will make it to the runoff, followed by the top Republican vote-getter (my guess is it will be either Dardenne or Angelle), who will then go on to beat the Democrat handily.

Then again, until a few weeks ago, nobody in their right mind thought we’d have another Governor Edwards of Louisiana. Or that the LSU Tigers would fall to pieces so dramatically.



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