Up is down. Day is night. A Democrat is favored to win Louisiana’s highest office. And once-dominant U.S. Sen. David Vitter actually wants to debate more, while the onetime underdog in this volatile gubernatorial race, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, would prefer not to risk making a damaging mistake or allowing Vitter to change the conversation.
And there’s one more thing that few would have predicted at the outset of the campaign: It’s a great show, one that’s attracting a sizable audience both inside Louisiana and among the politically obsessed nationwide. So for those just now tuning in, here’s some background that might help sort it all out.
Edwards heads the majority-Republican Legislature’s Democratic caucus, but that doesn’t mean he’s the minority leader. That’s because the Louisiana Legislature is not organized by party, so there is no formal majority or minority, just fluid, ever-shifting alliances.
One side-effect of this: If elected, Edwards will almost surely include Republicans as well as Democrats in high leadership posts. And yes, despite the separation of powers between administrative and legislative branches, he’d have tremendous say over who fills the most powerful posts, and a key division among lawmakers will once again be between those who are on the governor’s team and those who aren’t. Lawmakers keep saying that’s not going to happen, but invariably, it does.
One area where Edwards has not always been on the same page as many of his fellow Democrats is on education. He’s vowing not to go after charter schools now, but his skepticism regarding how far to expand them puts him in a different camp from, say, Mitch and Mary Landrieu. Same for Common Core. Back when the House Education committee took a key vote over whether to abandon the controversial standards, Edwards voted on the losing side, while Democratic members of the Legislative Black Caucus played a key role in keeping Louisiana from pulling out.
Edwards’ lineage has been important in this race. He comes from a family of Tangipahoa Parish sheriffs, dating back four generations, and that’s helped him secure law enforcement support. He does not, however, share the gene pool with the most famous Edwards to ever appear on a Louisiana ballot, former four-term Gov. Edwin Edwards.
Vitter also started out in the Legislature in the 1990s, but if anything, he was a caucus of one. You could blame that on a ruthless personality, or credit his obsessive push for ethics reform, or both.
Here we see the roots of his long-running feud with Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, a top aide back in the day of the late Sheriff Harry Lee, who used to tangle with Vitter almost for sport. Normand, also a Republican, was at the table when that unlucky Vitter private eye electronically monitored a major Edwards supporter, and he has seized on the episode as evidence of Vitter’s flawed character. “I’ve watched him for many, many years,” Normand says in a commercial by a pro-Edwards Super PAC working with the Democratic Governors Association. “David Vitter is all about David Vitter; he’s not about anybody else.”
Vitter’s difficulty getting along with others shows up elsewhere, too, including in his relationship with Gov. Bobby Jindal. The two share similar ré sumé s and they used to have something of a senior partner/junior partner relationship. That ended in 2007, when Jindal’s gubernatorial launch coincided with news that Vitter’s phone number was discovered in the records of a Washington, D.C., call girl ring. Jindal hesitated to leap to Vitter’s defense. The incident, of course, also cost Vitter the moral high ground he once claimed with voters.
Up in Washington, Vitter’s tried to play the same good-government card, but his efforts there have been far more ideological. His crusade to keep members of Congress and their staffs from receiving the employer-subsidized health care that most people who work for large organizations enjoy — misleadingly couched as a special deal under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act — has given his colleagues a taste of the grandstanding that his legislative colleagues despised.
Vitter did pick up some allies along the way, though. He mentored a new generation of GOP state lawmakers, who got their footing thanks to Vitter’s old-term limits initiative. Some fellow Republicans are with him out of respect, others out of convenience, and still others are hoping he’ll make it to the Governor’s Mansion and appoint one of them to the vacant Senate seat. Then there are his vanquished gubernatorial foes, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, neither of whom is supporting Vitter and neither of whom is likely to forget the brutal attacks he waged against them during the primary.
If Vitter wins, politicians who have misgivings will have to put them aside and jockey for his favor, just as they will if Edwards wins. On paper, the fact that they’re all Republicans should make that a smoother process. Given his history, though, the transition may be just as unpredictable as this crazy campaign.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.