This time last year, I never would have predicted that U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who’s always found a way to win, would implode. I also didn’t think that a little-known, populist but socially conservative Democrat from Amite would be a stronger gubernatorial candidate than, say, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu might have been. Landrieu was elected lieutenant governor twice and continues to poll well, but Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ much lower profile turned out to be a secret strength, one that enabled him to turn the election into a referendum on the divisive senator.
As for the outgoing governor, I never envisioned Bobby Jindal as the GOP presidential nominee, but I did think he’d hang on at least until the voting started. But then, I never would have come up with the idea of the kids’ table debates, which kept him off potential voters’ radar. I figured he’d paint the state’s condition in unrecognizably glowing terms, but I never would have predicted Jindal would come up with whoppers such as no-go zones in Europe, or that he’d repeatedly insist that “immigration without assimilation is invasion.” And no, I never saw Donald Trump coming, although I certainly hope we’ll get to see him go in 2016.
Still, ’tis the season to look ahead and try again, so here goes:
First, the easy part: I predict Edwards will keep his campaign promise and Louisiana will finally see Medicaid expansion, something that Jindal refused to consider. There are some kinks to be worked out, but the will is there, not just in the soon-to-be governor’s office but among the state’s business community.
I’m not sure I’d bet against another Edwards campaign plank, a higher minimum wage. The Republican-dominated Legislature will surely put up a fight, but if we value rewarding work, it’s awfully hard to make a principled argument that people with full-time jobs should live in poverty. Edwards’ proposal is strikingly modest, an increase of $1.25 an hour over the federal level, or $50 a week, phased in over time. He’s right that this is something the federal government should do, but given Congress’s dysfunction, the burden has fallen on states, and more than half have already stepped up. If Edwards makes this a priority, he may be able to pull it off.
One reason is that the state’s business lobby enters 2016 in a weaker position than in years past. The historically powerful Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in particular emerged as pretty toothless last year. It failed to keep many of its own longtime allies in the Legislature from closing some tax loopholes to avert devastating budget cuts, then dug itself into an even deeper hole when it gave many legislators failing grades for their votes, then supported them through its political arm for re-election anyway. The group’s political action committees also issued a rare gubernatorial endorsement of Vitter. And we all know how that turned out.
Another major player that will lose clout in 2016 is the Louisiana Family Forum. The socially conservative group has championed everything from school vouchers to legislation seeking to allow discrimination against gay and lesbian people under the guise of religious freedom. The organization couldn’t have had a stronger ally in the Governor’s Mansion than Jindal. Realistically, it couldn’t have a weaker one than Edwards.
If these conservative groups are on the outs, the state’s teacher unions and local school officials, who were among Edwards’ earliest and most passionate backers, are decidedly in. Given that reform movement backers still dominate the Legislature and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, though, their power to roll back policies will be limited. The result could be a series of standoffs. Or more optimistically, there may be an opportunity to find some rare common ground.
Plaintiff lawyers put lots of money into the gubernatorial race, and they too will have the new governor’s ear. Edwards promises a status quo approach, but there will be exceptions, including over the environment. Edwards plans to seek the industry’s voluntary help in repairing the coast. He said he would prefer to avoid litigation, just as the industry says it would, but warned, “I firmly believe that if there isn’t at least some implicit understanding that litigation follows an unsuccessful negotiation, there is not going to be a successful negotiation.”
Away from Baton Rouge, I’d watch for Landrieu, an ambitious politician who probably doesn’t have path to higher office in Louisiana for the foreseeable future, to keep building a national profile. The monument fight hurt him in some parts of his own state, but it could only help in Democratic circles elsewhere.
Louisiana will have its own big 2016 Senate showdown. The last time the state picked a senator, Vitter acted as kingmaker and rallied the GOP behind his chosen candidate, Bill Cassidy. He couldn’t pull off the same thing for himself during this year’s governor’s race, though, and with no obvious party leader on the horizon, stay tuned for another intraparty brawl.
Because this much is easy to predict: In 2016, Louisiana politics will continue to put on a great show.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.