The first thing Edwin Edwards told audience members at last week’s congressional forum before the Central Chamber of Commerce was that they were right, and he was wrong. Edwards said he’d had serious reservations when the city incorporated in 2005 and created its own school district separate and apart from East Baton Rouge Parish. But seeing what they’ve done with the place, he said, “those reservations are completely evaporated.”
In truth, the legendary former governor, convicted felon and Democratic candidate in the crowded 6th District primary probably didn’t need to butter up members of this particular crowd. They may not make up his base, but they greeted him as a rock star nonetheless. The cellphone cameras emerged from pockets and purses, and the laughter flowed when Edwards told the story of how he once offered to buy lunch for the city’s mayor and his wife, but they declined because they’re Republicans.
“So I saved 40 bucks,” the ex-governor quipped.
None of which is to say that Edwards won a lot of votes in the room or that he’s got any foreseeable chance of going back to Washington to represent the conservative district. In fact, despite scenes like the one last week, his high profile has produced as much discomfort as amusement.
But Edwards is achieving one thing: He’s sucking up a lot of oxygen and sending the campaign in directions few would have envisioned before he jumped in.
One of his dozen opponents, Cassie Felder, has printed up lawn signs riffing on the old Edwards slogan from his 2001 gubernatorial campaign against klansman David Duke. “Don’t Vote for the Crook. It’s important,” they say (you have to look really hard to see the suggestion that voters should choose Felder instead). Another, Richard Lieberman, emailed out opposition research noting that Edwards had missed nearly 45 percent of votes when he last served in Congress, a period that ran from 1965 to 1972. Seriously.
Honestly, they’re wasting their time. When it comes to Edwards, voters know the deal.
That’s why the candidates with more money and name recognition, Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor, former state coastal czar Garret Graves, state Rep. Lenar Whitney and businessman Paul Dietzel II, are basically focusing on themselves and one another.
They need to, due to another side effect of Edwards’ entry. If you concede that he’ll land one of two runoff spots based on his party, his notoriety and perhaps a certain rebellious impulse among voters, then that leaves just one spot open for a Republican.
So in effect, the Republicans are running in something like a traditional party primary in which one will emerge victorious, not a typical Louisiana election in which the top two live to fight another day. Whoever wins will then be the overwhelming favorite to take the runoff and head to Washington.
All that’s just fine for Edwards, who’s clearly in his element and having fun on the trail.
What’s strange is the fact that the state Democratic Party, which announced its endorsement of Edwards last week, is playing along.
For one thing, Edwards doesn’t need the formal nod. His brand is a lot stronger than the party’s these days, and the Democrats’ serious candidate for major office this year, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, is running as if he didn’t exist.
For another, there’s a strong argument that Edwards’ candidacy does a disservice to the Democrats in the district. If their votes were available in large numbers, the Republican candidates would be trying to earn them, a dynamic that creates about the only leverage Democrats have in Louisiana these days. This way, though, the eventual winner just needs to run to the right.
Most of all, though, if the party’s goal is to present itself as a legitimate alternative, cozying up with Edwards does the opposite.
At best, he’s a novelty, an entertaining diversion. At worst, he’s an embarrassment. In neither case is he a symbol of a functional political party — let alone a growing one.