Gov. John Bel Edwards likely won a short-term boost for his reelection campaign by how he handled preparations for Hurricane Barry, analysts said.
Edwards looked steady as he dominated news coverage in south Louisiana for nearly a week, about three months before the Oct. 12 primary, in his role as the state’s commander in chief.
The governor, who has a sizable lead in polls at this point, briefed the press daily at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge and was featured repeatedly in local news coverage during visits with officials in coastal parishes both before and after the storm made landfall on Saturday.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the leading Republican challenger at this point to the incumbent Democrat, appeared on CNN and the Weather Channel but otherwise received little attention as he visited coastal parishes.
Eddie Rispone, a Republican businessman, was nearly invisible.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a fellow Democrat, and several parish presidents of both parties thanked Edwards for the attention during his visits. But the Louisiana Republican Party complained afterward that he milked the storm for political gain.
“Of course, this tour had little to do with surveying damage and everything to do with staying in front of the cameras for as long as they will let him,” the party’s statement said.
How governors respond to natural disasters can matter greatly.
Hurricane Katrina, up to then the costliest disaster in U.S. history, swamped metro New Orleans in August 2005, exposed the woeful preparations by city, state and federal governments and left then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco looking overwhelmed during TV appearances in the immediate aftermath.
A popular governor to that point, Blanco lost favor with the public, and she didn’t seek re-election in 2007.
Bobby Jindal was elected as governor to replace her and worked assiduously to ensure that no one ever accused him of appearing besieged during a natural disaster.
Speaking to the cameras, Jindal would display his prodigious memory as he recited the most minute details, in his rat-a-tat-style, that he had just received during a briefing from state emergency officials.
“For mayors and governors, disasters are like the Super Bowl,” said Andy Kopplin, who was chief of staff to Blanco and Gov. Mike Foster and deputy mayor under Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans. “Everyone stops what they are doing and focuses on you – what you are saying, what you are doing. Successes and shortcomings are magnified, and you can’t control the weather or other players in the drama any more than the Saints could control the officials in the NFC championship game.”
Edwards has essentially adopted the Jindal playbook, albeit in a more low-key style.
He stopped his RV campaign tour across Louisiana last Tuesday as then-Tropical Storm Barry loomed in the Gulf of Mexico.
The governor began overseeing daily briefings at the state’s Emergency Operations Center, wearing khaki pants and short-sleeve shirts stitched with his name and the state logo.
He flew by state helicopter to meet with local officials in Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson, Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes, where he inspected storm preparations beforehand. On Monday, he returned to Plaquemines, Terrebonne and St. Mary parishes to see how they fared.
“The governor was in command and in charge,” said Roy Fletcher, a Republican political consultant. “He didn’t have to talk about anything other than the hurricane, getting the state ready and getting the state’s assets ready. That’s a great asset for a politician to not have to talk about anything other than that.”
Edwards was playing to a strength that he developed during his four years as a cadet at West Point and during his eight years as an Army Ranger who ultimately oversaw several hundred soldiers. It’s an ability he first displayed in Louisiana in July 2016 when he emerged as a calm presence after a white police officer shot dead Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and black residents erupted in protest and, 12 days later, after a crazed gunman killed three Baton Rouge law enforcement officers.
Three weeks after that tragedy, a no-name storm submerged parts of East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes, and Edwards oversaw state government’s response with the same reassuring hand.
While Edwards suspended his RV tour last week, he didn’t entirely shut down his re-election campaign. Viewers watching the Weather Channel saw repeated showings of his first TV ad during the governor’s race. In it, Edwards takes credit for a turnaround in the state’s finances and touts a teacher pay raise that he pushed through the Legislature.
“The Weather Channel will have guaranteed viewership during a disaster,” said John Couvillon, an independent pollster in Baton Rouge. “You’re appearing on TV at the time others are not.”
The Louisiana Republican Party, however, took a dim view of the ads: “Louisiana residents, searching for the latest weather information, who grew tired of press conferences and staged photo-ops, turned to the Weather Channel for information or maybe their local news … where they were met with JBE’s campaign commercial.”