John Bel Edwards, a former U.S. Army Ranger and small-town lawyer, soundly defeated once-invincible Republican David Vitter to become the first Democratic governor elected in the Deep South in more than a decade.
The two-term legislator, who was elected to his first office in 2007, also ended the Democratic Party’s losing streak of 15 statewide races. He replaces term-limited Republican Bobby Jindal, who steps down on Jan. 11.
“I didn’t start the breeze of hope, but I did catch it and so did you. That’s why we are here tonight, because we caught that breeze,” Edwards told his supporters gathered at the historic Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans. “The people of Louisiana believe we can be better. I commit to you, we will be better.”
Edwards said he sees a time for uniting Louisiana for the betterment of the state and pledged to work across political lines. He said Vitter had called him and was “very gracious.”
Vitter asked his supporters at the Hilton Hotel in Kenner to applaud for Edwards and wished him success. He announced that he would not run for re-election to the U.S. Senate when his term ends next year. “I’m very confident we are going to elect a very strong conservative to fill that Senate seat,” he said.
Vitter has been in public office for almost 24 years.
Edwards polled 646,860 votes, or about 56 percent of the total on a rainy election day. Almost 40 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
The campaign was one of the meanest and most expensive in memory. About $30 million had been spent by candidates and outside groups going into the final weeks of the contest. The campaign began in January with a series of forums featuring Edwards and the three main GOP candidates, who all criticized Jindal and spoke generally of issues facing the state. It evolved into the surreal, focusing on prostitutes, spying, strip joints and Syrians.
Largely unknown outside the State Capitol and his House district until a few months ago, Edwards, 49, is anti-abortion, pro-gun and supports a state ban on incoming Syrian refugees. He favors a higher minimum wage and expanding the rolls of Medicaid, and was a national Democratic Party delegate for President Barack Obama. Backed by teachers unions, Edwards opposes Common Core and wants greater accountability for vouchers and charter schools.
He effectively weaved a narrative that focused on his West Point credentials, eight years as an Army Ranger and a family history in law enforcement with a message to end the unpopular Jindal’s policies.
Vitter’s emphasized Edward’s party affiliation and Obama’s high negatives in the state, saying Edwards was hiding a liberal agenda under a moderate’s talk.
Jindal issued a statement congratulating Edwards on Saturday. “Over the next few weeks, Supriya and I are committed to work very closely with the governor-elect, his family and his staff to ensure a seamless transition for the next administration. Now is the time for everyone to put politics and partisanship aside and make sure our new governor is ready on day one,” Jindal said.
Jindal’s chief political operative, Timmy Teepell, tweeted: “David Vitter gave Louisiana Governor’s mansion to the Democrats. Shame on him. Republican voters spoke and crossed the aisle.”
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said voters discovered what elected officials had known for years: Vitter is difficult to work with.
Few saw a tough race for Vitter when he announced in January 2014.
The two-term U.S. senator had handily won re-election in 2010 even after apologizing for an unnamed serious sin the day before phone logs linked him to Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the infamous D.C. Madam. His campaign amassed about $10 million, more than his three major competitors combined. He had the backing of businessmen, oil and gas operators and insurance executives.
Vitter had never lost an election in six tries since 1991, when he replaced former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in the Louisiana House, representing Metairie.
And Vitter was running in conservative Louisiana, which had not chosen a Democrat for statewide office in seven years.
In Louisiana, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, who ironically was the last Democrat elected statewide in 2008, was soundly defeated in 2014, though she gained more votes than any other Louisiana Democrat during the seven-year losing streak until Saturday night.
Democrats once held all major offices in the South, but that domination has been eroding since the 1970s and collapsed completely during the past two decades.
Today, with the exception of Virginia, in every state of the old Confederacy, Republicans control the governors’ mansions, all but one statewide-elected official post and both chambers of the state legislatures.
Edwards will be the only Democrat elected statewide in a government dominated by Republicans, who hold the six other statewide seats and who hold a super majority in the state Senate and a substantial majority in the Louisiana House.
Vitter served as a legislator from 1992 to 1999, establishing a reputation as a conservative ideologue willing to point out the ethical lapses of his colleagues.
He won a seat in the Congress, replacing Bob Livingston, who had abruptly resigned on the cusp of being elected to the speakership because of a martial infidelity scandal. Vitter served in the U.S. House until 2005. He was elected with 943,014 votes to replace retiring John Breaux in the U.S. Senate.
Vitter won re-election in 2010, despite his own scandal, outpacing the field with 715,415 votes.
But in the October primary, Vitter received 256,300 votes to slip into the runoff, about 17 percent behind Edwards, whose stronger showing surprised national and state Democrats, spurring them into action for the runoff.
Since the primary, Edwards consistently led Vitter in public and leaked internal polls, anywhere from 6 to 22 percentage points, depending on the poll.
Until he ran for governor, Edwards had polled a total of 22,935 votes in two primaries and one general election for the state Legislature, representing parts of St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, a largely rural part of the state whose most famous native is pop singer Britney Spears.
Edwards, who was leader of the House’s ever-shrinking Democratic minority, was assigned by the Republican majority to sit on the back row in the left hand corner of the chamber.
Sounding almost like he blurted out a secret thought accidently, Edwards made his announcement on public radio in February 2013 during an interview with host Jim Engster about Medicaid expansion.
Tearing a page from Vitter’s old playbook, Edwards secured the field among Democrats so he would be the only “big name” running.
In March, polls showed Edwards at 16 percent, though many assumed he would be in the runoff because Democrats would back him.
In July, when party officials met in the House Chamber, Edwards sat outside the rail in a row of seats occupied by lobbyists during sessions and watched as the officials debated, then voted to make him the party’s official nominee.
After the meeting broke up, Edwards was sure Mitch Landrieu wouldn’t run and thought Vitter would be his ultimate opponent, confidently predicting the senior senator’s negatives, as well as growing discontent with Jindal’s leadership, meant Louisiana was ready for a new direction.
He had only one staffer, Mary-Patricia Wray, who had worked for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers union, until the summer. Otherwise, Edwards, his wife, Donna, and his siblings handled the campaign themselves, holding periodic strategy sessions with close friends — including former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and her husband, Raymond, as well as a few classmates from West Point.
As late as August, right before qualifying, efforts were underway in some Democratic Party circles to recruit a bigger name as their standard bearer, someone like Mitch Landrieu.
For several months, columnists wrote off any Democrat’s chances, particularly Edwards’, suggesting instead that the party’s faithful rally around Vitter’s GOP opponents, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle or Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. He was called “a place-holder candidate” by Democratic Party operatives. Edwards started 2015 with $784,919 in the bank, compared with Vitter’s $3.5 million
Vitter maintained his money lead for the final three-week push, reporting $2.1 million on hand on Nov. 1, compared with Edwards $1.3 million, most of which was raised in the final weeks of October, when it became apparent that the Democrat was going to do better than expected.
But the free-for-all nature of the primary, in which candidates from all parties compete, allowed Edwards to look like the adult in the room as his GOP opponents attacked one another with increasing viciousness.
Both Angelle and Dardenne alluded often to Vitter’s prostitution scandal, as did two outside groups that funded ad campaigns reminding voters of the affair and the questions left unanswered after his apology.
Vitter responded in kind with spots accusing his fellow Republicans of abusing their positions, which his two opponents claimed misrepresented their positions.
Edwards picked up the prostitution theme after the primary, releasing one of the most hard-hitting ads charging that Vitter was on the phone with a prostitute and missed a vote honoring fallen soldiers, which claimed Vitter put “prostitutes over patriots.”
Vitter answered with his own ad, surrounded by his family, that addressed his sin, the support of his family and the lessons he learned, all without mentioning specifics or saying the word prostitutes.
While much of the national media focused on Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal, his unnamed sin actually was more of an avatar for the hard feelings engendered by the senior senator’s bare-knuckled political style that had destroyed the reputations of Republican opponents over nearly a quarter-century.
Both Angelle and Dardenne took to calling Vitter a liar. Angelle said electing Vitter would put “a stench” over Louisiana.
After the primary, Angelle remained conspicuously silent. Dardenne, who as a child helped his mother deliver Barry Goldwater handbills, took an unprecedented step for a prominent Republican and crossed party lines to endorse Edwards.
Elizabeth Crisp and Will Sentell, of The Advocate Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.
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