Regardless of how the election turns out, the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat John Bel Edwards exceeded all expectations, particularly in a state headed in a Republican trajectory.
The numbers were optimistic, but as late as Friday no political professional — outside the Edwards camp — was willing to go on record saying they thought a Democrat would sit in the fourth floor State Capitol office of the governor once the dust settles.
Still, his surprisingly strong showing during the last six weeks of the race, alone, has invigorated a moribund party that last elected one of its members statewide in 2008.
Usually, candidates enter the fray at carefully managed events that present images of waving signs and “we’re saved” enthusiasm.
But Edwards’ February 2013 announcement seemed almost an inadvertent answer to Jim Engster’s unexpected query on public radio.
He started his response with an audible intake of breath. “Jim, that’s ah, that’s ah, an interesting question. I do intend to run in 2015,” Edwards said.
Though a widely respected back-bencher — he literally sits on the last row of the chamber — the House minority leader from Amite was not a household name. For the most part, pundits mentioned his quest shortly before referencing Don Quixote.
He supports the minimum wage and expansion of Medicaid.
He also comes from a politically prominent law enforcement family in the Florida Parishes. He graduated from West Point and commanded a unit in the 82nd Airborne division.
He’s pro-guns. And, rather than just talking about being anti-abortion, Edwards faced it in real life — overruling the recommendation of a physician when his unborn daughter was found to have spina bifida. (The daughter is now in graduate school.)
Edwards benefitted from his GOP opponents trying to knock each other off, while pretty much leaving him alone. U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle spent most of $10 million, as counted by the Center for Public Integrity, on television attack ads.
Then in September and October a few polls came out — including one paid for by The Advocate and WWL-TV — that suggested Edwards, who always was expected to make the runoff, was actually in the lead and might have a shot at winning in the runoff.
While the possibility of one of those scenarios coming true excites Democrats, handicappers should keep in mind that Louisiana is still a red state.
For pollster Bernie Pinsonat, it’s not so much the numbers but the availability of parking that tempers his predictions. His Baton Rouge office is within sight of the state Democratic Party headquarters.
During the last major statewide race — U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s unsuccessful re-election bid in 2014 — the streets around his office were filled with the cars of young people gathering at HQ to make calls, knock on doors and hand out fliers.
The result was 436,108 black voters — 47.3 percent of those registered — cast ballots in the Nov. 4 U.S. Senate primary. That was 164,592 more black voters, most of whom vote Democratic, than went to the polls in the October 2011 statewide primaries. Landrieu led the primary with 42 percent. But, as expected, Republican Bill Cassidy swamped her in the Dec. 6 runoff.
That turnout was a remarkable accomplishment borne of considerable effort that Pinsonat said is not being repeated by Edwards.
Early voting statistics, used as a prognosticator for interest in a particular election, shows a 25 percent drop in the numbers of black voters.
Michael B. Henderson, LSU’s pollster, found that the continuum between flaming liberal and arch conservative is really quite narrow in Louisiana. He used descriptors like “a hair’s breadth” to describe differences between the four candidates. But when the election is down to two, voters focus more. “I suspect they’ll do as they have historically done, and the vast majority are going to come back home to their party,” he said.
But look no further than Angelle and Dardenne for evidence that party trumps individual, at least among Louisiana voters.
Each GOP candidate has, repeatedly, made no bones about how much they personally hate Vitter and how bad they think the senior senator would be as governor.
“We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana if we elect David Vitter as governor,” Angelle said. Dardenne said, “Sen. Vitter is a liar.”
Asked at the forums if they would endorse each other or Edwards, both Republicans refused to commit, thereby preempting any possibility of having to cross party lines.
Optimism aside, that seems more telling than a good run by a Democrat in Louisiana.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@the advocate.com and is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.