Louisiana Democratic Party hopes to duplicate governor’s race in future _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Governor-elect John Bel Edwards says the oledge before addressing the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce in his first speech in New Orleans since the election Friday, December 18, 2015.

Louisiana Democrats say they recognize that Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards had the perfect “three-legged stool” to boost his campaign from a potential afterthought in 2015 to winning the race.

Edwards, who will be sworn in Jan. 11, is the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Louisiana since 2008.

Now, Democrats are analyzing what went right for Edwards and whether they can re-create the magic political mix in what could be a heated U.S. Senate race in 2016.

“It was a lot of hard work that’s not very sexy,” said Louisiana Democratic Party Executive Director Stephen Handwerk. “That work and that investment and those relationships that were built paid off.”

Democrats had come off a stinging defeat in the 2014 U.S. Senate race between three-term incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican Bill Cassidy, a Baton Rouge congressman.

“We learned a lot of hard lessons last year,” Handwerk said.

The three key components to Edwards’ win, he said, were the new governor’s personal biography, the perceived flaws of his chief Republican opponent and the network that the state Democratic Party has built through technology and close relationships.

Edwards, 49, went into the race as a little-known, two-term Louisiana House member in the minority party. He was up against a well-financed juggernaut in Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter; a well-known Republican who had won statewide races before in Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne; and well-liked Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who was seen as a possible party “establishment” alternative to Vitter.

Edwards spent two years on the campaign trail trying to build name recognition that would send him into a runoff against Vitter, who was seen as divisive and vulnerable following a 2007 prostitution scandal.

The Democratic Party came out in support of Edwards’ campaign in March — a strategic move months before qualifying that served as a warning to other Democrats considering entering the race, Handwerk said.

“The only pathway forward for a Democrat was for us to get behind him early and stay there,” Handwerk said. “That was important to us, and it sent a message to all of the contenders.”

Had Edwards and another Democrat split the Democratic vote in the Oct. 24 primary, another Republican could have slipped into the runoff against Vitter.

In the final month before the election, the party was key in working behind the scenes to introduce Edwards to a network of potential supporters and build a base around him.

“The state party provided assistance to the governor-elect’s campaign in a number of areas, including voter outreach, communications and research,” Edwards transition team spokesman Richard Carbo said. “It truly was all hands on deck to help reach as many Louisianians as possible in the final weeks of the campaign, and the governor-elect is tremendously grateful for their help.”

Leaders are hesitant to divulge too much, for fear of giving away secrets to their opponents.

But the party had about 250,000 voters on its radar and set about reaching them through direct mail pieces, phone calls and door-to-door visits.

“We’ve gotten pretty darn good at not only ID’ing who the voters are we need to have contact with but also how to have those conversations,” Handwerk said.

He said technology has spread efforts out. In the past, the party would work with precinct captains in areas that they knew were voter-rich. Now, they can target voters anywhere who meet the profile of a possible Democratic voter who just needs a little urging to head to the polls.

“A vote’s a vote,” Handwerk said.

Often, they attempted two “touches” for each of the voters they reached out to — a call and a visit, a mail piece and a call, or some other combination.

Edwards had a close circle of campaign advisers that broadened with help from the state party, which sought to expand his appeal through use of volunteers as well as local leaders.

Handwerk said one of the initial obstacles was building Edwards’ name recognition: “There were a lot of people early on who just didn’t know who John Bel Edwards was.”

That, Handwerk said, gave him a chance to define himself. “That helped immensely,” he said.

The state party raised nearly $2 million for campaign efforts in the final month leading up to the Nov. 21 runoff — breathing visible signs of life into a party that had been written off by many just a year earlier and greatly boosting the party’s ground-game operation.

“State parties are the best, usually, to run a ground-game operation because of their unique expertise and the investments we’ve made in technology,” Handwerk said.

After a big loss in the 2014 Senate race and a big win in the 2015 gubernatorial race, the party finds itself heading back into another race for the U.S. Senate, this time in a presidential election year.

Already, a long list of Republicans are eyeing the job after Vitter announced that he would not seek a third term.

Handwerk said the party’s current inclination is to attempt to mimic the gubernatorial race — to come up with a strong, possibly lesser-known candidate to rally behind early while Republicans battle each other for a spot in the runoff.

He said party leaders are waiting until after the holidays, though.

“After that, I think the team will come together and look at what’s right for the state,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/.politicsblog.