Exactly 142 weeks ago, state Rep. John Bel Edwards blurted out on Jim Engster’s talk radio show in Baton Rouge that he planned to run for governor. His announcement attracted little attention. Few people gave him a chance.
Now, with less than one week before the Nov. 21 runoff, the improbable is now likely as Edwards holds a commanding lead over U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who during most of the campaign was the heavy favorite.
Every poll released in recent days shows Edwards leading Vitter, by anywhere from six to 22 points.
Edwards, a Democrat, is now collecting millions of dollars more in contributions than Vitter, a Republican, after the senator earlier in the campaign had raised more money than Edwards and the two other Republican candidates, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, combined.
After losing in the primary, Dardenne has crossed party lines to endorse Edwards and said in a recent interview that Angelle’s decision to not support either candidate “is telling his people that it’s OK to vote for Edwards.”
An analysis of early voters seems to favor Edwards, said John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based pollster.
Edwards has blunted Vitter’s charge that he is soft on crime by airing a television ad with popular sheriffs extolling his virtues.
Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a Republican who was just re-elected with 89 percent of the vote in the state’s second most populous parish, is featured in another ad saying, “It’s important that this is not about the party. This is about the individual, and in this particular race, David Vitter is not that individual who is going to be able to lead Louisiana.”
“I feel very good about our position,” Edwards said in an interview on Thursday. “But I know better than to count chickens before they hatch.”
In January 2014, when Vitter formally announced his candidacy, Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist, said that Vitter could lose only if Edwards got out of the race to allow another Republican to face-off with Vitter in the runoff.
“John Bel is looking good,” Pearson said. “Vitter would be glad to trade his situation for John Bel’s.”
To be sure, there’s a counter argument to the avalanche of information forecasting a monumental upset by Edwards.
Republicans supporting Vitter have been vocal in noting that the Republican candidate for governor in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, won by nine points almost two weeks ago even though no poll released late in the campaign showed him leading the race.
Republican supporters of Vitter also take heart from his track record: He has won seven races in a row in moving up to the Senate, earning a reputation along the way as a strategic genius.
There’s another track record in Vitter’s favor: No Democrat has won statewide office in Louisiana since 2008. Mitt Romney won 57 percent of the vote in winning the state during the 2012 presidential election. Then-U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy crushed U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu in the 2014 Senate election by winning 56 percent of the vote.
“Eventually, David Vitter will recover from the beating he took from the Republicans in the primary, and the state will return to its conservative Republican roots,” said state Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, a strong Vitter supporter.
Mike Henderson, who is director of LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, wrote in a recent analysis that voters tend to come home by Election Day, meaning that enough conservative Democrats, Independents and Republicans could ultimately swing into Vitter’s column.
The senator expressed confidence at a press conference on Friday where Jefferson and St. Tammany Parish elected officials endorsed him.
“We can absolutely measure a real swing in our direction in the last five days, in particularly,” Vitter said. “It’s about people focusing on our future and focusing on the facts and the huge difference between me and my opponent on issue after issue after issue. You name the issue, and I’ve been a Louisiana conservative, and you name the issue and John Bel Edwards has been an Obama liberal.”
Of course, Vitter’s optimistic comments certainly could be no more than putting on a brave face.
The Democratic path to victory calls for having black voters account for 30 percent of the overall turnout and for winning at least 33 percent of white voters.
Sen. Landrieu, for example, received 19 percent of the white vote in losing last year.
A poll released by the University of New Orleans on Thursday showed Edwards getting 42 percent of the white vote.
Other polls indicate that Edwards is winning about 50 percent of the support from those who voted for Dardenne and Angelle, when he only needs 25 percent of them to win.
Another point in Edwards’ favor: The UNO poll showed that Gov. Bobby Jindal has a 20 percent approval in La., while Obama’s is 42 percent. Edwards has attacked Jindal at every opportunity and said a Vitter victory would represent a “third Jindal term on steroids.”
Edwards has portrayed himself as an atypical Democrat by emphasizing his background as a West Point cadet who commanded a paratroop unit and who is anti-abortion and pro-guns. He prefers not to highlight his votes in the Louisiana House that have caused business trade groups to endorse Vitter, and he prefers not to discuss his party affiliation.
“When we enlisted in the military, no one asked if we were Republicans or Democrats, because we don’t win wars by dividing the military against itself,” Edwards says in a new campaign ad released Friday. “As governor, I will lead by those same principles. If something is good for our families, I’ll fight for it, and if it hurts our families, I’ll fight against it.”
Roy Fletcher, a longtime media consultant who worked for Angelle in the primary, had predicted the day before that Edwards would focus on presenting his best side to voters in the final week.
“He’ll try to reassure voters that he is a Louisiana guy with Louisiana values for a Louisiana election,” Fletcher said.
In the meantime, Edwards is raking in campaign contributions. He has held four events alone in New Orleans during the past week, with events organized by political consultant James Carville at his home; real estate appraiser Jim Thorns at his home; Dale Atkins, who is clerk of the Orleans Parish Civil District Court, at the home of friends; and Dan Robin, a businessman who is close to state Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, at Arnaud’s restaurant. Alario attended the event. Asked if this meant he was crossing party lines to support Edwards, he responded in a text: “Only means that I like a good meal!”
In an interview, Edwards said the reason money is flowing into his campaign coffers “is a function of momentum. The campaign really has wind at its back now.”
Edwards has been able to keep Vitter on the defensive in recent days, particularly with his no-holds-barred television ad that said while Edwards was called to service in the army, Vitter was calling an escort service from the floor of the Congress and missed a key vote honoring soldiers killed during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The ad not only highlighted Vitter’s key vulnerability — his 2007 admission that he committed a “very serious sin” with the D.C. Madam — but also kept the political conversation focused on Vitter’s character rather than Edwards’ Democratic voting record on business and education issues.
Down in the polls, Vitter has responded by making himself more accessible to the media during the runoff and showing a much greater penchant for attending debates. He was criticized for making only two of the seven televised debates during the primary.
The two candidates will face off Monday in what appears to be the final televised debate during the runoff. The one-hour event will air on Nexstar stations beginning at 6 p.m.
“I’m sure he’ll try to continue this myth that he’s somehow a conservative or a moderate,” Vitter said Friday. “All of the facts, all of the record, the voting records, completely dispel that myth.”
In the past two days, the Vitter campaign and conservative supporters have highlighted that Edwards met with supporters Thursday afternoon at a facility in New Orleans that during the evening serves as a risqué hip-hop club.
“There was nothing improper or unprofessional involved,” said Edwards campaign spokeswoman Mary-Patricia Wray, adding that they just rented the building and noting that his spouse Donna attended the event.
The winner on Nov. 21 will be the 56th person to be governor of Louisiana, according to Alecia Long, an LSU history professor. The good times may not last long for number 56.
The state Department of the Treasury issued a press release on Thursday that provided a reminder of the budget mess that the next governor will inherit. It reported that state budget receipts are down 14 percent during the current fiscal year.
Treasurer John Kennedy said the accumulated budget deficit could reach $1.2 billion for Jindal’s successor.
“If I were the new governor, I’d start stocking up on Scotch or another adult beverage,” Kennedy said.
Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter @TegBridges. For more coverage of the governor’s race, follow Louisiana Politics at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.