Louisiana state Rep. John Bel Edwards soundly defeated David Vitter in yesterday’s gubernatorial election. Not only that, but in his concession speech, Vitter announced that he won’t seek reelection to the U.S. Senate next year. In other words, David Vitter is finished as a consequential politician, done in mainly by an eight year old prostitution scandal, but also by the immense unpopularity of the sitting Republican governor Bobby Jindal.
The Democratic Party is encouraged to see a flicker of life in the Deep South, although progressives need to keep things in perspective.
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.
The devil is in the details when it comes to opposing abortion and supporting gun ownership. What kinds of bills would be radical enough that Edwards would veto them? Is there a different line than there would be for a Republican governor?
In some ways, it’s already a defeat if Democratic candidates feel that they need to concede the Republican position on these two very important issues in order to get a hearing on other policies. And there’s a price they have to pay when their party is more divided on issues than the Republicans. It waters down the message.
On the other hand, more than anything else, it was the Democrats’ ability to unite around one candidate while the Republicans were slugging it out in a nasty primary that brought them success. “Edwards” is a big name in Louisiana politics, but John Bel Edwards’s clan is not related to former Governor Edwin Edwards. In a pre-election analysis, The Daily Beast‘s Jason Berry did a comprehensive examination of the new Edwards family power in the Bayou State. Here’s part of that:
It also helps Edwards, 49, that his brother, Daniel, 47, is Tangipahoa Parish sheriff—a fourth-generation sheriff in a sprawling family of lawyers, politicians, and law enforcement officials with deep Louisiana roots.
Tangipahoa is a heavily rural civil parish whose seat, the town of Amite (population 4,141) is 82 miles north of New Orleans. Edwards’s law firm is in Amite; he lives in nearby Roseland (population 1,165). For much of the last century, the parish, which is 30 percent African-American, was known as “Bloody Tangipahoa,” with a history of lawlessness that included a gruesome chapter involving the Ku Klux Klan. That stigma changed under Sheriff Frank Edwards, John Bel’s father.
“Frank Edwards was one of the first sheriffs that hired blacks,” says Donald Bell, the African-American pastor of New Life Outreach Ministries in the town of Hammond.
“Frank was balanced. Everybody loved him. John Bel had good training from his daddy. I was close to Frank. He lived and died politics. If Frank told you, ‘Jerry can’t beat John,’ you could bet that Jerry wasn’t gonna beat John. And Frank would give you two, three reasons why. He was a good Catholic guy. They were committed, just like John Bel—he doesn’t miss Mass. John Bel is a people person, down to earth, what you see is what you get.”
According to Pastor Bell, Edwards has always gotten along well with the local NAACP, and he actually won a state House seat that had been drawn up to be held by a black politician. This ability to bridge the racial divide helps explain how he managed to avoid any Democratic challengers in the primary. And, of course, it was his father who paved the way.
With the endorsement of state law enforcement organizations, his strong record at West Point and as an Airborne Ranger, his family’s good reputation for piety and positive race relations, and an opponent who was best known for paying prostitutes to dress him in a diaper, it would probably be a mistake to see this election result as some kind of bellwether for anything.
The Democrats simply had a much better candidate.
They also didn’t have Bobby Jindal hanging around their neck like an anvil. Like all Louisiana Republicans these days, Vitter tried to destroy his opponent by tying him to President Obama, but this tactic was neutralized by Edwards’ efforts to tie Vitter to Jindal. This left Vitter dependent on social issues, like guns and abortion, but there weren’t any meaningful distinctions between the two candidates on those issues, and there wasn’t much question which candidate had the better record for being a good family man.
And, so, we got a result that is surprising but really was foreseeable if you drilled down into the specifics of the race.
As for what happens now, the The Times-Picayune believes that Gov.-Elect Edwards will bring Medicaid expansion to the state and that teachers unions will have more influence. Edwards will try to deliver on a campaign promise to double funding for higher education, but Jindal has left the state’s finances a mess, and he’ll need to work with a legislature dominated by Republicans.
The Democrat has promised to govern from the middle and is expected to appoint Democrats and Republicans alike to cabinet positions. For example, [Republican Lt. Governor Jay] Dardenne is likely on a short list to fill a high-profile position in the Edwards administration.
Edwards may have to govern in a bipartisan manner, not just by choice. The governor-elect has a serious budget crisis on his hands, and will need a two-thirds vote of the GOP-controlled Legislature for many of his proposals to fix Louisiana’s finances.
“I think that the Legislature and executive branch should cooperate fully,” said Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, who is likely to remain atop the state senate in 2016.
But not everyone is excited to see Edwards head up the executive office. The Democrat makes many of the state’s leading business groups nervous. Edwards has not been supportive of the school choice movement, including charter schools and the state voucher program. Business leaders also believe he is more inclined to roll back their tax credits and incentive programs to fix the state’s budget problems than a Republican would be.
Edwards will have to find an enormous amount of money somewhere to shore up the state’s finances. Louisiana is wrestling with a $500 million shortfall in its current budget cycle and a projected $1 billion budget gap in the next fiscal year.
I’m no expert on Louisiana’s legislature, so I don’t know whether Medicaid expansion will get done or not. I do know that Edwards will have four years to rebuild the Democratic Party and that a lot of people will get experience working in his administration.
Above all, I’m just glad to see David Vitter go. I never liked that man.