History repeats itself––at least in Louisiana gubernatorial elections.
When John Bel Edwards defeated David Vitter in Saturday’s runoff, voters once again did what they have been doing for decades––they picked a new governor who offered the clearest contrast to the outgoing governor.
A walk down memory lane tells the story of the cycles of change. After eight years of the flamboyant, quick-witted Edwin Edwards in the governor’s mansion, voters were ready for the buttoned-up David Treen, a Republican, in 1979. Then, after a tedious four years with Treen, the state brought back Democrat Edwards in 1983. The third Edwards’ term was marked by fiscal crisis, tax increases and indictments. So, voters wanted a clean break in 1987, and they found it in the person of Buddy Roemer, a whip smart reformer who pledged a revolution.
But soon after taking office, Roemer’s revolution sputtered. To consolidate his political base, the conservative Democrat became a Republican, but voters lost confidence and wanted another change in 1991. Roemer lost in that year’s primary and the state’s voters then had to pick between Edwards and former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke in a runoff that gave us the infamous “Vote For The Crook, It’s Important” bumper sticker––and another four years of Edwin Edwards.
But as his fourth term neared its end, the brutally realistic Edwards sensed that voters wanted change, so he didn’t seek re-election. In 1995, Republican Mike Foster won in a landslide. He was the perfect contrast to the state’s recent chief executives. While Edwards played the part of the dashing rogue and Roemer the too-big-for-his-britches Ivy Leaguer, Foster came along as the bulky, balding good-ole-boy who offered traditionalist principles.
Though Foster’s popularity held up well throughout his two terms in office, Louisiana was ready for something new in 2003. To succeed Republican Foster, Louisiana elected its first woman governor, Democrat Kathleen Blanco.
When hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into Louisiana’s shoreline in 2005, they also dealt a severe blow to Blanco’s political future. She didn’t seek re-election in 2007 and was replaced by the man she beat in 2003, Bobby Jindal, a fast-talking Republican with a 10-point plan for everything —a “whiz kid” who was the perfect contrast to the mellow, plodding Blanco.
But after eight years of Jindal, Louisiana once again felt the itch for change. The young governor who came into office with so much promise ended his eight-year tenure with a fiscal mess in Baton Rouge, a sky-high negative job rating and a losing presidential bid.
When voters looked at their choices for governor this year — a partisan Republican Rhodes Scholar with Washington ties (David Vitter), the current Republican lieutenant governor (Jay Dardenne), a former Jindal appointee (Scott Angelle) and a Democratic state legislator who had opposed the current administration (Edwards)––it was John Bel Edwards who offered the clearest contrast to the Jindal era.
While Vitter and Jindal have been behind-the-scenes adversaries for years, polling indicated that many voters saw them as cut from the same cloth. Electing another partisan Republican Rhodes Scholars with Washington ties was not the kind of sharp divergence in style and politics that most voters wanted.
Sure, there were many other factors in this election — ads, money, attacks, party, policies, endorsements, scandals, Syrian refugees — but, in the end, history turned out to be our best guide. After years of one kind of governor, Louisiana voters wanted something different. Forty-four years ago, the something different was named Edwards. Eight years ago, it was named Jindal. This time, it was named Edwards.
The cycles of history swing deep.
Ron Faucheux is a nonpartisan pollster, political analyst, author and former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. Last September, he conducted a poll about the Louisiana gubernatorial race for The Advocate and WWL-TV.