By Caroline Hymes
When it comes to tricky political situations, Governor John Bel Edwards is an expert. As the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, he navigates a landscape in which a legislature full of opposition spends every day trying to thwart his agenda. Some have called him an oddity, an anomaly, or even an “Accidental Governor”. “It’s certainly a unique situation” says Political Science Professor Rosalind Cook, who specializes in Louisiana Politics. If the election of Governor Edwards to the highest office in the state was such an improbability, how did it happen in the first place? “Most political scientists and pundits did not give him (Gov. Edwards) much of a chance when he was first running, based on the demographics and political scene of the state” explained Professor Cook.
The circumstances surrounding the 2015 Louisiana Gubernatorial Election were as distinctive as the state itself. Even before the non partisan Jungle Primary, in which all candidates run on the same ballot aiming to be one of the top two vote getters, thus advancing to the coveted runoff election in December, political observers predicted then Senator David Vitter (R-LA) would win an easy victory. Vitter’s name recognition far exceeded Edwards’, and he had been a force in Louisiana politics for decades. Personable, popular, and well funded, there was no question that in the months preceding the election Senator Vitter was the candidate to beat. However, Vitter had some serious baggage; in 2008 he had to publicly apologize after it was revealed that he solicited a prostitute from the infamous “DC Madam”. Vitter managed to survive the scandal, and after resoundingly winning reelection in 2010, many believed that Vitter had successfully put the situation behind him. Few would have predicted that it would be resurrected and become a major issue in the 2015 Louisiana Gubernatorial Election. Edwards ran an ad two weeks before the runoff election that may have solidified his victory, brutally matching the time of Vitter’s fifth phone call to the DC Madam to a missed vote in Congress honoring fallen soldiers killed in the Iraq War. The ad was devastating, and made its airing reverberated across the country as one of the most brutal negative advertisements in American political history.
Edwards was also attractive to crossover conservatives in the state of Louisiana because of his pro-life stance and support of gun rights. Through a combination of strategic negative advertising, strong debate performances and an impressive legislative record, the end result was one that few could have predicted; John Bel Edwards was elected Governor of the State of Louisiana over Senator David Vitter by a margin of 56.1% to 43.9%. The reaction from supporters in New Orleans when Edwards was declared the winner was pure jubilation. The crowd burst into a spontaneous chant; “Who dat say they gonna beat John Bel?”
Now the question everyone seems to be asking is “can lightning strike twice?” That is to say, can the improbability of a Democrat being elected to the highest office in the state be replicated? Unlike last time, many political insiders are cautiously saying “yes”. Professor Cook counts herself among those experts, when I asked whether she predicts an Edwards victory, Cook said “I would think John Bel Edwards will be re-elected, but Louisiana is very hard to predict and it is such a red state.”
What is the key to solidifying a victory for the incumbent Governor? That’s where the opinion of various experts starts to differ. Cook seems to believe that Edwards’ chances rested upon his ability to project the characteristics that made him likeable and popular in the first place. “If John Bel is able to run an election where he still focused on his virtue, his values, but also his guns and his religion as well as his love of family, that certainly backs out some of his opposition”. Other experts stress that assembling a winning coalition is the most important step towards success. Cook attended an event last week where the famous editor of “Gambit”, a weekly Louisiana political newspaper, Clancy DuBos spoke on the situation. Cook said that DuBos believed the key to Edwards’ success was recreating a three part coalition essential for any Democrat to be competitive statewide in Louisiana: the blacks, the boudreauxs and the bubbas. Put more technically, Edwards relies on strong African American support, support from the Cajun community and crossover support from rural white voters who typically vote Republican.
Putting together this coalition can be a challenge, especially because Edwards walks a precarious balancing act every day. In order to appeal to crossover Republicans, Edwards distances himself from the national Democratic party and highlights his more conservative positions. However, in doing so, he runs the risk of depressing turnout among his core base of Democrats, who could be alienated by his stances on abortion and guns. How is he doing so far? Pretty well, says Tulane University College Democrats President Henry Walther, who stated that “TUCD (Tulane University College Democrats) plans on supporting the Governor’s campaign.” “His work on Medicaid expansion, coastal erosion, and many other areas are laudable.” Walther added, explaining that although “We have personal disagreements with him on the issue of access to abortion…his other policies have benefited Louisiana.” Walther insists that “the Democratic base in this state is soundly in support of the Governor.” This is certainly good news for Governor Edwards, who will need to count on the support of every single Democrat in Louisiana before he can even begin to win over Republicans.
There seems to be evidence that Edwards’ positions are more in line with average Louisiana Democrats than outside observers may initially perceive. For example, Edwards’ position on gun control differs from that of the national Democratic party, which could cause for concern among strategists who fear this appeal to the right would jeopardize his position with his Democratic base. However, some voters in Edwards’ base seem to agree with him on this issue. LaShondra Hills, a 36 year old Louisiana resident who describes herself as a Democrat explained that she believes that in her view “it is not the guns that are the problem, but the people with the guns.” Her statement was eye opening as it reshapes a narrative around Edwards’ second amendment support, a controversial contemporary issue. Instead of being out of step with Democratic voters in the state because of his pro-gun attitude, he may have ended up alienating his own base in Louisiana if he had taken the same hard line positions as national Democrats. Gun control is just one illustrative example of Edwards’ keen political instincts which serve to keep him in touch with voters across the state. Hills voted for Edwards in 2015 and when asked about his job performance thus far she gave this promising review; “So far, so good.”
Another factor contributing to the likelihood of Edwards’ electoral victory is the identity of his challengers. In the years leading up to 2019, there was widespread speculation around the possibility of several high profile Republicans running for Governor. Eccentric businessman Eddie Rispone announced early on that he planned to run, but many establishment Republicans were wary of whether he would be a formidable opponent to Gov. Edwards, favoring other possible candidates. However, shockwaves were sent through the Louisiana Republican Party when Attorney General Jeff Landry, Governor Edwards’ habitual sparring partner in Baton Rouge, and one of his toughest critics, decided to run for re-election as Attorney General instead of making a run for the Governor’s Mansion. Weeks later, Senator John Kennedy (R-LA), who had stoked media intrigue by teasing his decision for months, announced that he wouldn’t run, and would instead remain in the United States Senate, citing his “love” for the body of government. In a public statement , Democratic Governors Association spokesperson Jared Leopold declared the move a sign of Edwards’ strength, stating “Senator Kennedy did the same thing that every other top Republican recruit did: he paid for a poll and then realized he could not beat Gov. Edwards.” A few days later, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA), announced he was tossing his hat into the ring, saying in a statement “I am running for Governor and I intend to win”, but many acknowledge he may be facing an uphill battle. Professor Cook explained that one of his key challenges is that he “does not have a lot of name recognition.” When asked about prominent statewide Republicans, Hills likewise was familiar with Landry and Kennedy, but had never heard of Abraham, or Rispone for that matter. Similarly, Mia Provenzano, a 20 year old lifetime resident of Metairie, recognized Kennedy, but none of the others. “I don’t follow politics very closely, but Senator Kennedy is pretty well known in the state” Provenzano explained, “I think Kennedy would probably be a strong candidate, but if he isn’t running I could definitely see some of my family and friends, who typically vote Republican, either voting for Edwards or, more likely, not voting at all.” These are ominous words for Governor Edwards’ challengers, and it remains to be seen whether any Republican candidate can make a breakthrough with voters and introduce themselves in a positive light, before Gov. Edwards’ campaign ads identify them permanently in a negative one.
While experts may debate the best path to victory for Edwards, the Governor’s campaign strategy, thus far, seems to be a blend of many of these ideas. Perhaps one of his strong suits is that many of the aforementioned positions come naturally and authentically to Edwards, who has demonstrated a genuine commitment to his principles in his personal life. His support of veterans cannot be questioned, as he himself is a veteran. His pro-life stances? The Governor and his wife refused an abortion even when it was recommended by a doctor, because the baby would be born with Spina Bifida. His support of the second amendment? Edwards is a proud gun owner. His support for criminal justice reform? Under his leadership, Louisiana implemented a new criminal justice reform package, which finally ended its long reign as the most incarcerated state in the country. Medicaid expansion? Edwards expanded Medicaid and cut the state’s uninsured rate in half. Even the success of his criticism of Vitter’s marital indiscretions can be attributed to his personal example, the attack struck a chord because they stood in contrast to Edwards’ decades long marriage to Donna Edwards, his high school sweetheart. This combination of progressive policies in many areas combined with more traditionally conservative family values isn’t just a political strategy, it seems to be who Edwards really is. Perhaps that is what made him such a formidable candidate in the first place, and what allowed his improbable rise to power. Whether he chooses to focus on coalition building, criticizing his Republican opponents, flaunting his conservative bona fides or emphasizing his family values and military service, his most valuable weapon remains his authenticity. The common thread throughout his 2015 campaign, tenure as Governor and early stages of the 2019 election, is that Edwards argued for policies that were a reflection of his personal values, thus making the case to Louisianians that those values belonged to the kind of person they want as a leader. Centering the discussion around those values is the key to defying the odds, and being reelected as Louisiana’s Governor.