Stephanie Grace: Here's why Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards shifted right on food stamps policy _lowres

AP file photo: Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards

For the longest time, the first, last and only question about Democratic prospects in this year’s gubernatorial races was this: Can a Democrat win?

But now that state Rep. John Bel Edwards has emerged as an improbably viable contender against U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the Nov. 21 runoff, political insiders are starting to ponder a different head-scratcher. What would happen if Louisiana, which has turned so Republican in recent years that it hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2008, actually sent one to the Governor’s Mansion?

One school of thought is that his agenda is right there for all to see, in the form of his voting history as head of the Legislature’s Democratic Caucus. Here, Edwards has a record as a strong proponent of safety-net measures to raise the minimum wage, enable litigation over unequal pay for women and expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. He’s a supporter of unions and funding for local school districts and a skeptic of policies associated with the education reform movement — a complicated area where support doesn’t always track party lines — and those that tip the legal scale for defendants rather than plaintiffs.

Another, and arguably better, way to game out the shape of an Edwards administration would be to consider what he could accomplish in the Capitol’s context.

Louisiana’s governors are rightly considered among the strongest in the nation, but if Edwards wins he’ll still have to work with a Republican-dominated Legislature. And that matters, a lot.

One of the most dramatic changes Edwards can make on his own would be to accept the Medicaid money on Day One, and he’s promised to do so. This would bring in some $23 billion over 10 years, with the state paying up to a 10 percent match, and insure several hundred thousand poor Louisianans. Despite Gov. Bobby Jindal’s adamant opposition, there’s a growing consensus in health care, business and even political circles to accept the expansion, so it would be a relatively uncontroversial move. Vitter too has said he’d consider taking the money, but he would insist on contentious and probably drawn-out negotiations with the Obama administration to set specific terms. So if he wins, the process of tapping into the money would certainly take longer, anyway.

It’s not at all clear, though, that Edwards would be able to build enough support to pass a higher minimum wage or pay equity legislation.

He’d have trouble cobbling together a coalition in favor of higher taxes too, particularly since that requires two-thirds majorities in both houses. That’s not to say he wouldn’t roll back tax exemptions. But then again, given the state’s structural budget problems, either candidate will have to seek new revenue by curtailing giveaways.

Based on the make-up of the Legislature and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Edwards would run into strong resistance if he decided to attack school choice measures, including from many of his fellow Democrats.

Edwards and Vitter differ on some social issues as well, but here the status quo is likely to prevail no matter who wins. Edwards does not favor defunding Planned Parenthood, while Vitter does, but that issue’s being hashed out in the courts. Edwards opposes a “religious freedom” measure that many see as hostile to gay people, while Vitter supports it. But that bill never made it to a vote last year, even though Jindal made it a public priority. If lawmakers had no appetite for that fight then, there’s no reason to think they would want to take it on now.

And there’s one more thing to consider. Edwards has already brought Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne into his circle, and he’d certainly have to work with Republicans in leadership positions in the Legislature. That too limits how far he’d go pushing ideological priorities.

To date, Vitter’s main campaign argument against Edwards is that he’d bring Obama-style liberalism to the Capitol. Yet in all but a few instances, it’s hard to see how he’d get very far if he tried.

A better way to evaluate the contest might be to forget about what’s not going to happen, and pay attention to what, realistically, could.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.