By Molly Kellogg
This past Thursday evening, the three Louisiana Gubernatorial candidates took the stage in dramatic fashion: Representative Ralph Abraham, businessman Eddie Rispone, and sitting Governor John Bel Edwards, trading shots and floating vague comments all evening.
“We have the highest sales tax in the nation, and that’s why we’ve lost more jobs than any other state,” Abraham remarked, jeering at Edwards from across the stage. “Congratulations, you’ve killed our economy,” he continued as he awaited applause.
John Bel Edwards is considered to be, by many, our “accidental governor,” having won office after his opponent had been involved in a prostitution scandal. However, Edwards soared above his Republican opponents this past Thursday evening’s debate. Then again, that isn’t saying much.
The three men spoke in unison on three issues: God, guns, and abortion. It was hard to make out the Democrat in the room.
They discussed abortion, medicaid expansion, and taxes at length. The candidates brought gun control into the conversation only to express their shared love for the second amendment. All three men said they would oppose universal background checks for gun purchases.
“The Second Amendment is self-explanatory,” Abraham explained. “I’ve defended it at the federal level and I’ll defend it at the state level.” When asked, Rispone said, “it’s a mental illness problem, not (a) gun problem,” to which Edwards agreed and followed, “I believe in the Second Amendment. I do not support extending background checks to all sales.”
Doing their best to avoid addressing real solutions; Rispone hammered away at his business smarts, Edwards concentrated on hitting all three of his talking points, multiple times over, and Abraham just wanted to stand out.
They were getting nowhere fast, butting heads in particular over Edwards’ handling of the medicaid expansion. Abraham portrayed the rollout as a nightmare, exclaiming, “I’ll get it right. I’ll fix this program and get people ineligible off the roles.” Rispone chimed in that the system was unsustainable. However, neither Republican served up a plan for reversing Edwards’ medicaid expansion policy. In the end, despite all the jabs he sustained, it was clear that Edwards had secured the lead — being the only candidate proposing real bills and real solutions, the only one offering detailed answers.
The polls already project an Edwards victory, even with the primary weeks away. Edwards seeks re-election as a Democrat in perhaps the most conservative state in the union, a daunting and complex challenge.
So what does it take to get elected as a Democrat in a predominantly red state? Does it mean fitting in with the Republicans? Does it mean alienating some Democrats?
That’s what people are still trying to figure out.
Take John Bel Edwards, for example. Things got uncomfortable during the debate, when Edwards deflected questions about social issues. Actively anti-abortion, like his Republican opponents, Edwards has sought to identify those social policy issues most important to the citizens of Louisiana, a “red” state on the political map, but one with a significant centrist constituency.
During the debate, the interviewer asked whether the candidates would support a clause allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest. They were then shown a poll, citing that 37% of Louisianans would support the clause. Edwards deflected, and tried to move the conversation elsewhere. Asked a second time, he said he supported the Heartbeat Bill, adopted in May 2019 with his support.
Only when asked a third time Edwards finally said no. A no-win situation for Edwards–either way, he stood to offend a key bloc of voters, including his own party.
“I respect and understand differences, however, I’m pro-life,” said Edwards, who stands strong behind the bill he signed into law. To make matters worse, Rispone actually applauded Edwards’ efforts.
The President of the Tulane College Democrats, Rebecca Sprague, explains that “Edwards knows what people want to hear.” Well aware that the majority of Louisiana voters will lean to the center or right in the upcoming election, he treads carefully, skittering around the questions of abortion and gay marriage. When forced to take on these issues, Edwards launches into his medicaid expansion spiel, flipping the script, and showing off a winning issue.
According to Michael Pickering, a professor of Political Science at Tulane University, some of the Governor’s positions “take him out of the Democratic Party, making him less accessible for left-leaning liberals.” More often than not, in this case, Edwards represents the lesser of two evils.
Rebecca Sprague agrees with Pickering. She will vote for Edwards, she says. She will root for him. But given a better alternative Sprague would change her mind in a heartbeat. Like Sprague, many Louisiana voters say they will only vote for Edwards by default.
Edwards has a talent for playing both sides, which is essential in a state like Louisiana. He knows “what voters are looking for and the soundbites they will hear on the news and on twitter,” as Sprague suggests. He knows what messaging to repeat and what topics to avoid in order to hold onto his constituent base. The same cannot be said for the other candidates.
It is hard to know what statewide success would look like for a Democratic candidate. “In Louisiana’s history,” Sprague explains, “there has never been a successful pro choice Democrat in statewide office.” Political opinions in Louisiana are ‘“governed by historical context. To win an election depends on a series of value judgments.”
Certainly, a Louisiana Democrat can be progressive. Look at Latoya Cantrell, the new, progressive Mayor of New Orleans. But New Orleans is New Orleans. This race is about Louisiana.
Few of Edwards’ platforms are progessive. Rather, they are rooted in democratic ideal of allocating government resources to help people. The casual voter may conclude that he does not go far enough, that his policies look no different from those of the Republican candidates, but, as Sprague suggests, they are “ultimately rooted in a different ideological base.”
It is not crucial that a Democrat be in office for Democratic ideals to flourish. Sprague argues that local politicians are far more important than statewide and federal politicians in advancing progressive ideals. Latoya Cantrell’s recent victory is far more critical than keeping a Democrat in the Governor’s mansion. If Bel Edwards is not re-elected, it is “not the be-all end-all ” for the Democrat party in the State of Louisiana.
In fact, Sprague believes being active in supporting issues while making sure your voice is heard is a more effective strategy for propelling democratic ideals.
The Democratic Party is at a turning point, struggling to define its positions on a range of complex issues. Perhaps we will know better after the next elections whether a candidate can be both pro-gun and anti-abortion and still “be” a Democrat. The next elections will tell us how much party alignment really matters in the long run.