When Hillary Clinton held a presidential campaign rally in Baton Rouge a few weeks ago, John Bel Edwards was across town, making his own campaign appearances.
That one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats could be in the same city and the Democratic front-runner for governor wasn’t onstage alongside her is illustrative of the shaky playing field that Edwards faces in the ruby-red Louisiana politics of today.
Edwards, a Democratic state representative and head of his party’s caucus in the House, faces Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter, one of the state’s most ardent conservatives, in the Nov. 21 runoff.
“Democrats are giddy about the position they are in. They have a chance to win this,” said Southern University political science professor Albert Samuels.
But at the same time, Edwards’ campaign has been careful to portray him as not a typical Democrat — often holding the national party’s image at arm’s length.
He repeatedly has said he won’t raise taxes and has highlighted his military background. One of his campaign ads focused on his anti-abortion views. Meanwhile, he’s downplayed low ratings and rankings from business groups.
“This election is not going to turn on party; it’s going to turn on leadership and character,” Edwards said during this week’s debate.
Democrats hold no statewide offices in Louisiana, and the last one elected — Mary Landrieu — suffered a crippling defeat in last year’s U.S. Senate race.
Samuels said Edwards represents the Democrats’ best shot at reclaiming a seat elected statewide.
“He’s a Democrat — there’s no question about it,” Samuels said. “He’s also pretty conservative on some issues, and that helps him.”
Vitter and his supporters are hoping voters will look at where Edwards lines up with the national party and also home in on Edwards’ legislative voting record with key business groups. This week, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and other business groups endorsed Vitter, citing Edwards’ 29 percent lifetime rating on LABI’s priorities.
During the Louisiana Public Broadcasting debate on Tuesday, Vitter repeatedly urged viewers to look up Edwards’ voting record.
“He’s built his campaign on a myth that he’s some conservative and that we don’t differ very much,” Vitter said.
Many of the anti-Edwards campaign ads have included references to President Barack Obama.
Samuels said he’s not surprised that Republicans want to paint Edwards as a Washington-style liberal, but he doesn’t see him that way.
“I would expect any Democrat to be painted with the most liberal brush possible,” Samuels said. “It’s worked in the past in Louisiana.”
Edwards has said he has never met Obama. His campaign quietly held a fundraiser in Washington, D.C., recently, but he hasn’t touted the support of big-name national Democrats. Landrieu had Hillary and Bill Clinton stump for her campaign in Louisiana. On the flip side, Vitter has appeared with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and touted the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas.
At the same time, Edwards has been more quietly embraced by many of the state’s Democratic elites: former Gov. Kathleen Blanco; political activist James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign; former Congressman Cleo Fields; and Landrieu, to name a few.
“There’s a difference in Louisiana values versus the national perspective,” said Stephen Handwerk, executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. “John Bel is exactly the type of Democrat we need right now.”
He dismissed suggestions that Edwards isn’t a real Democrat or has tried to eschew his party affiliation.
“I think he’s what people are ready for,” Handwerk said. “We don’t need more lip service. That hasn’t worked for us.”
There have not been many Democrats complaining that he’s not liberal enough.
“I think, right now, Democrats just want to win,” Samuels said.
New Orleans resident Julie Schwam Harris is among them.
“I think he’s just an excellent candidate because he’s going to support things that people need to succeed in life,” said the retiree who volunteers as an advocate on women’s issues. “He’s so much better for the well-being of people in general and the state.”
Harris said she believes Edwards ultimately would push for causes she supports, such as Medicaid expansion, equal pay for women, a minimum-wage hike and mandatory paid sick leave.
“To me, that is more important than any other social issue I don’t agree with him on,” she said.
Edwards’ Republican colleagues in the House voted to endorse Vitter. The House Republican delegation has not revealed what the vote count was, but several have been vocal about why they aren’t backing Edwards.
State Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, has served on three committees with Edwards in the House.
“Almost every reform measure that we’ve passed has been passed over the fierce, vocal opposition of John Bel Edwards,” she said. “I think, if he wins this election, it will be remembered as the grand deception election.”
She noted Edwards’ votes against measures that have aimed to expand charter schools and vouchers in Louisiana. He has opposed legislation that seeks to rein in plaintiffs’ lawsuits.
“His campaign is trying to characterize him as a uniter, but it’s been my impression of him that he’s a divider. He’s always throwing grenades out,” Landry said.