State Rep. John Bel Edwards’ impossible journey from sacrificial lamb to frontrunner has caused lots of folks to reassess their assumptions about this year’s gubernatorial race, myself included. The other day, someone asked me whether I thought New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was in that number, and whether he’s kicking himself for staying out now that it’s clear a Democrat could actually win.
I have no way to know whether Landrieu regrets his decision. But if he does, he shouldn’t.
On paper, Landrieu was by the far the strongest candidate the Democrats had to offer. He has a famous name, strong poll numbers, two easy statewide victories for lieutenant governor under his belt and a heap of political talent. If Democrats had a shot, I figured, he’d be the one to make the race competitive. And don’t you just know how much he would have loved to take on, and possibly take down, U.S. Sen. David Vitter?
Yet, like so many of my predictions about this crazy cycle, I’d like to take that back. At this moment, for this race, the largely unknown Edwards is clearly the stronger horse.
Edwards has several pluses that seem to be helping his cause.
He’s from Amite, not one of the state’s major cities, so his political base is broader. In the primary, his 40 percent showing was particularly impressive because turnout in Democratic strongholds such as New Orleans was low, although early voting statistics suggest it will improve in the runoff.
He’s not associated with the city, its politics or its problems, and he hasn’t tried to take down any Confederate monuments lately, an initiative that has plenty of support among Landrieu’s constituents but polls terribly statewide.
He’s got moderate-to-conservative positions on some issues, including abortion and gun rights, and a West Point résumé that screams honor, leadership and other nonpartisan attributes.
But the biggest advantage Edwards has is that, to most voters, he’s a relatively blank slate. While Landrieu had potential to be a lightning rod himself, Edwards doesn’t have a well-defined persona in most people’s minds. And that’s enabled him to make the election a referendum on Vitter, who most certainly does.
State Democrats have long clung to the hope that they might revive the old John Breaux path to statewide victory. It’s the idea that a candidate who’s conservative on social issues and who hails from a swing region such as Cajun Country can still win statewide, even though recent attempts at replicating the retired senator’s success have gone nowhere, particularly when the candidates they’ve fielded have faced Vitter in his two Senate victories. Other than the different geographic base, Edwards has some similarities with Breaux and others of his generation.
The biggest boon for Edwards, though, is that Vitter’s candidacy, which once appeared so invincible, is itself deeply flawed this time around.
Just why that is will be debated for months and years to come. Is it the old prostitution scandal, the one he thought he’d survived when he trounced Charlie Melancon in 2010, coupled with a self-righteous, zero-tolerance streak aimed at everyone else? A divisive style that inspired him to target fellow Republicans in the primary with such gusto? The stylistic similarities to deeply unpopular Gov. Bobby Jindal, despite their personal rivalry? The fact that his attempts to tie Edwards to President Barack Obama have fallen flat because Baton Rouge just isn’t Washington?
The state’s party leanings still favor Vitter, but whatever the reason or combination of reasons, there’s no doubt the senator is leaving voters with a bad taste.
Edwards, meanwhile, has something in common not just with Breaux but with another successful politician of old, Democrat-turned-Republican Mike Foster. Foster also ran for governor from the Legislature, and seemingly came from nowhere to capture voters’ collective curiosity against a higher-profile field. Most voters had no real preconceptions about Foster before the 1995 campaign and didn’t have much time to get to know him once he took off, but he certainly made a good first impression. More crucially, they gave him a look in the first place because the candidates they knew, including a former governor, a congressman, the state treasurer and the lieutenant governor, left them looking for an alternative.
Twenty years later, Edwards appears to be tapping into the same dynamic. And in this most unpredictable of election years, that could be enough to do the trick.
Correction: Friday’s column suggested that Advocate reporter Tyler Bridges videotaped U.S. Sen. David Vitter while he left the voting booth. Bridges attempted to interview him using an audio digital recorder.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.