Voters in Louisiana’s 6th Congressional District have two choices to represent them in Washington, D.C.: a political newcomer, who served in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cabinet, or a well-known former governor, who also happens to be a convicted felon.
By nearly all measures, Republican Garret Graves, who served as Jindal’s coastal adviser for six years, has the upper hand heading into a Dec. 6 runoff against former Gov. Edwin Edwards, a Democrat.
Edwards, a colorful character from a different political era, once famously quipped to reporters that the only way he’d lose an election bid was “if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
But that was in 1983. Three decades later, the tables have turned.
“Other than an enormous mistake by Garret Graves, it’s hard to imagine a path for Edwin Edwards,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “And even in that case, it would still be Edwin Edwards on the other side.”
The 6th District, as it was drawn in 2011, leans heavily Republican, and Graves handily out-fundraised all of his primary opponents — giving him a chance to flood the airwaves and mailboxes with campaign materials prior to Tuesday’s primary and to build name recognition.
Congressman Bill Cassidy, a Republican who has held the seat since 2009, faced no opposition the last time he ran in the 6th, but Cassidy opted this year to challenge Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu — leaving a rare congressional vacancy.
More than a dozen names appeared on Tuesday’s primary ballot.
Despite the district’s obvious GOP leanings, Edwards eked out a win in the crowded race at 30 percent to Graves’ 27 percent.
Still, Edwards didn’t come close to the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff, and more than 64 percent of the district’s votes went to Republican candidates.
“There doesn’t seem to be that much drama,” Cross said. “The conclusion seems to be pretty much pre-ordained.”
At 87, Edwards’ decision to again seek public office has drawn national attention but mostly for the novelty. It’s been nearly two decades since he last occupied the Governor’s Mansion and more than 40 years since he represented Louisiana’s now-obsolete 7th District in Congress.
In the time since his name last appeared on a Louisiana ballot, Edwards has spent nearly a decade in prison on racketeering and fraud charges, gotten a divorce from his second wife, married his prison pen pal, had another child and been the subject of a failed reality TV show.
“He can’t win,” said Roy Fletcher, a Republican political consultant in Baton Rouge. “Ain’t no way he’s going to win.”
And at least some on the Democratic side agree that a win is virtually impossible, because they believe the district was drawn to ensure GOP representation.
Fletcher said Edwards only made the runoff because the GOP vote was splintered across so many candidates in the primary.
“If Edwin Edwards had not gone through what he had gone through and he was 68 years old, he still wouldn’t win,” Fletcher said.
But that doesn’t mean Graves, who is seeking office for the first time, sees himself as coasting along to an obvious victory.
“I don’t ever take anything for granted,” Graves said. “I’m focusing on the fact that my name recognition is still about half of Gov. Edwards’.”
Edwards, still armed with his long-noted wit and charm, also isn’t taking the election as predetermined.
“They’re the same people saying two weeks ago that I couldn’t make the runoff,” Edwards said of his detractors. “I surprised them Tuesday, and I’ll surprise them on Dec. 6 in the runoff.”
Both sides say they hit the ground running right after the primary.
“We’re holding the same tempo — 100 miles per hour,” Graves said.
Edwards has hired a new campaign manager — swapping 27-year-old Ari Krupkin for friend and former Palmetto Mayor Harold Taylor. Edwards said he’s not concerned by the shake-up. “I’ve never depended much on a campaign manager,” he said.
But what does each candidate see as a path to victory?
The 6th District is mostly centered in the capital region, but it claws down into Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes and arches up into Pointe Coupee and back to the Florida Parishes.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, registered voters in the district are about 73 percent white and 22 percent black.
And based on an analysis from the Cook Political Report, it’s the 24th most-Republican district in the nation — out of all 435 congressional seats.
Graves had raised — and spent — the most money heading into Tuesday’s primary. His campaign raised more than $1 million, which gave him a shot at being on TV and in voters’ mailboxes, but based on campaign finance reports, he had less than $250,000 left heading into Election Day.
Meanwhile, Edwards’ biggest expense was yard signs, and he’s not that far behind Graves in cash on-hand.
Edwards noted that, despite the heavy tide shift in favor of Republicans on Tuesday across the country, he came out on top in the primary “without having one paid television or radio ad.”
Edwards said he believes he can win because he’s not a typical Democrat and people know him. If they don’t, they will be charmed by him once they meet him.
“I’m a conservative Democrat who has a heart,” he said. “My record as governor is going to carry the day.”
He said his plan includes more direct targeting of Graves’ record, possibly through television ads.
“People should know who he is,” Edwards said. He said he doesn’t think that’s negative and that he just wants to point out facts about Graves, his ties to Jindal and other aspects of his background.
Jindal, who was at home on election night watching returns, endorsed Graves on Wednesday, a day after he emerged as the GOP contender in the runoff.
As for other aspects of his campaign, Edwards said he plans to be just as visible on the campaign trail in the final stretch to the runoff. In the runup to the primary, he frequently popped up at festivals, ribbon-cuttings and coffee shops across the district — nearly always greeted by a long line of people who remember him from his four terms as governor. In the runoff campaign, he also wants to focus on reaching out to younger voters “who do not really know me.”
“I’m gonna be the same kind of congressman as I was governor,” he said.
And what does Edwards plan to do if he doesn’t win?
“I haven’t thought about that. It’s an unnecessary exercise of my mental capacity,” he said.
Cross said Graves fared better in the primary than many had expected. Among his rivals for a spot on the runoff ticket were two sitting state lawmakers and a candidate named after a storied LSU coach.
“He hadn’t polled that well,” Cross said. “I was surprised those Republican candidates weren’t bunched a little closer together.”
Graves, who has pushed his candidacy through social media and Internet advertising, said he also believes that getting out to meet voters is the most important part of the final stretch to Dec. 6.
“That’s the most important means of engaging people,” he said. “We want to talk about substance in this race and get into solutions for Louisiana. I want to distinguish myself as the best option.”
Edwards and Graves could meet in a debate — both have said they would be open to it — though nothing has been set.
Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said even though Graves practically has “the home field advantage” in the race, he is right in not assuming the role of the presumptive congressman.
“You have a lot of voters who have a decision to make. There are a lot of voters who didn’t vote for Graves, and they didn’t vote for Edwards,” Stockley said.
Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.