They say it’s better to be lucky than good, but Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards didn’t have to worry about the distinction in the march toward his remarkable victory Saturday.
Edwards, a relatively unknown Democratic legislator from Amite, was both. And he needed to be in order to take down a legendary tactician who’d never before lost a race.
No question about it, Edwards ran a strong race. He set the terms of the conversation, easily deflecting charges that he’s too liberal to govern reliably Republican Louisiana and shifting the focus to personality, character and the social issues on which he holds more conservative positions.
He leveraged his rural roots to an impressive 40 percent primary finish against three Republicans, a feat even more striking given low turnout in highly Democratic urban centers. He started with few energetic backers other than trial lawyers and organized labor, particularly the state’s teachers unions, but later won key endorsements from the state sheriffs association and one of his Republican primary rivals, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
But Edwards also was exceedingly fortunate in drawing U.S. Sen. David Vitter as a runoff opponent, just as Vitter’s famous political acumen dried up.
Vitter limped into the runoff with just 23 percent of the primary vote. He spent the rest of the brief second round trying to regain his footing, largely by linking Edwards to President Barack Obama in a relentless cascade of negative ads, including several that capitalized on anti-Syrian refugee sentiment after the Paris attacks. Vitter had used the anti-Obama tactic to great effect in his 2010 re-election bid, but it fizzled this time around.
Vitter also committed some unforced errors that highlighted his reputation as someone who’d do anything to win. His primary-season attacks on Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle left such a bad taste that neither backed him in the runoff, and many of their supporters took the hint and looked elsewhere.
Then there was the spying scandal, in which a Vitter-paid private investigator was caught conducting surveillance on an Edwards contributor and longtime Vitter adversary Newell Normand, the Republican sheriff from Vitter’s home of Jefferson Parish. Normand advertised his displeasure far and wide, and even cut an anti-Vitter super PAC commercial.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Edwards was able to keep Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal front and center. His shockingly direct “prostitutes over patriots” ad, which highlighted a congressional vote honoring fallen soldiers that Vitter missed on the same day records show he got a call from a Washington, D.C., brothel, drew national attention. And Edwards kept the topic alive during debates. Asked about his low ranking from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, for example, he countered that he gave 100 percent only to his wife.
Then in the race’s final days, Gov. Bobby Jindal ended his ill-fated presidential bid and swooped back in from Iowa. Whether or not it really was payback for 2007, when Vitter and his wife Wendy held their “stand by your man” news conference just as Jindal was announcing for governor, Jindal sure seemed to enjoy messing with his longtime adversary’s desperate last push.
The upshot of all the focus on Vitter was that the race became a referendum on him. And even in victory, Edwards remains something of a blank slate.
He’s got clear record of pushing economically populist measures, and his first big move will be to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. To do much more, Edwards will need help from some of the Republicans who dominate the Legislature, and all eyes will now be on who joins the leadership and which fights Edwards chooses to pick. There’s clearly some nervousness about his intentions from the LABI crowd over tort reform issues and from backers of charters and private school vouchers.
Other than that, though, Edwards seems to be starting off with goodwill.
Chalk that up as yet another impressive accomplishment from a soon-to-be governor that Louisiana is still just getting to know.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.