Republican Garret Graves, who has never held elected office, won the 6th Congressional District race Saturday by trouncing Democrat Edwin Edwards, a former four-term governor who tried a comeback after nearly a decade in prison.
Graves collected 139,194 votes, or 62 percent, to 83,773 votes for Edwards, or 38 percent.
“Tonight I promise I will honor your trust,” Graves, 42, told cheering supporters at a downtown Baton Rouge restaurant.
“I tell you right now I am going to stick to my guns, but I need your help,” he said.
Edwards, 87, took the podium shortly after 9 p.m. to concede. “Turn out the light; the party’s over,” he told supporters.
“I’m not going to retire,” Edwards said but also announced, “I will not ever run for public office again.”
“It’s not the end of the world for me,” he said of the lopsided loss.
The defeat ends the up-and-down political career of Edwards, 60 years after he won his first election in a race for the Crowley City Council.
Graves and Edwards squared off in Saturday’s runoff election after they emerged as the leading vote-getters in the 12-person primary field on Nov. 4.
Edwards finished first in that contest, with 30 percent of the vote compared to 27 percent for Graves.
His primary win was fueled by his base of loyal supporters from traditional Democrats and, more importantly, by an inordinate number of GOP contenders who divided 64 percent of the initial vote.
But the 6th District is considered one of the most GOP-leaning in the nation, which meant that the ex-governor always faced a massive challenge in the runoff to get to Congress.
“It is a safe Republican district,” said Albert Samuels, chairman of the political science and criminal justice departments at Southern University.
Graves jumped to a huge lead from when the initial returns were reported and gave his victory speech barely an hour after the polls closed.
The Republican collected nearly 60 percent of the vote in East Baton Rouge Parish, 72 percent in Ascension Parish and 76 percent in Livingston Parish.
He carried all but Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes in the 13-parish district.
About 46 percent of registered voters turned out for Saturday’s runoff, down from 55 percent in the primary last month.
Robert Hogan, a professor of political science at LSU, said Louisiana’s GOP-dominated Legislature solidified the district for Republicans when boundaries were redrawn in 2010.
“All he has to do is act like a congressman, and things are going to go his way without any difficulty,” Hogan said two days before the ballots were cast.
Even before Saturday’s balloting, Graves was believed to have already landed his U.S. House committee assignments — Transportation and Natural Resources.
The 6th District extends from southeast Baton Rouge to the suburbs west of New Orleans and through the bayou communities into parts of Houma.
It was open this time because 6th District U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy opted to challenge U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a challenge that Cassidy won handily.
The 6th District race drew national attention, mostly because of the presence of Edwards, who served nearly a decade in federal prison after being convicted of racketeering.
His career included three terms in Congress — representing the old 7th Congressional District — followed by 16 years as governor over three decades.
Graves portrayed himself as a newcomer to elected politics but with enough government experience to get things done in Washington.
He is a former aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal and, most notably, oversaw the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Edwards presented himself as a familiar figure to voters, political warts and all, and one who offered a moderate approach to getting things done in the GOP-dominated U.S. House.
Joshua Stockley, associate professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said the former governor faced many of the same problems as Democrats nationally — a point that Edwards echoed in his concession statement.
“The most significant aspect of the electorate in 2014 is the unpopularity of President Barrack Obama,” Stockley said.
Stockley said Edwards’ prison record, white voters fleeing the Democratic Party in the South and an economic recovery that many voters have trouble seeing also worked against his bid for an upset.
The contest featured sharp differences on key issues.
Graves said he opposed a hike in the minimum wage.
Edwards said he favored a gradual increase to $10.20 per hour, up from $7.25 per hour now.
Graves said he backs the traditional definition of marriage — one man and one woman.
Edwards said he did, too, but also backs same-sex civil unions with the financial benefits that married couples enjoy.
Graves blasted the 2010 Affordable Care Act — widely known as “Obamacare” — and said it should be replaced with a law that protects patients’ relationships with their doctors, allows for more investment in health savings accounts and allows consumers to keep their coverage when they change jobs.
Edwards said good parts of the law should be retained and others adjusted.
The runoff was a low-key affair with just one debate.
Graves’ campaign fundraising and spending far out-distanced that of Edwards — $1.4 million to $385,000 as of the latest federal reports. Graves continued a steady diet of television ads throughout the runoff while Edwards only went on the air in the final days. The Edwards ads attempted to tie Graves to the unpopular policies of his former boss Jindal and alleged that relatives benefited financially through contracts during his state government tenure.
Just before Saturday’s vote, Graves-financed campaign fliers detailed Edwards’ federal conviction, said he had a “legacy of scandals and corruption” and blamed him for “failed policies that have placed Louisiana at the bottom of every good list and at the top of every bad list.”
Marsha Shuler, of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report. Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. Follow Marsha Shuler on Twitter, @MarshaShulerCNB.