It was one of the biggest upsets in the history of Louisiana politics. In a state where Republican President Donald J. Trump would get a whopping 58 percent of the vote in 2016, a Democrat, John Bel Edwards, smoked his opponent in the November 2015 gubernatorial election, ultra-conservative U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican. Edwards didn’t quite match Trump’s impressive 58 percent margin, but he was close, getting 56 percent of the vote in his race for governor.
What happened? Two things. Trial lawyers spent a fortune blasting Vitter for his past personal indiscretions, and voters didn’t view Edwards as a typical liberal Democrat, mainly because of his pro-life and pro-gun stances.
Vitter admitted to a “very serious sin” after reports surfaced showing his name on a phone log linking him to the so-called “D.C. Madam,” who was accused of running a high-end prostitution ring in Washington D.C. in 2007.
The Louisiana Water Coalition group, heavily financed by trial lawyers, who also happened to be Edwards’ supporters, ran vicious attack ads targeting Vitter for his ties to prostitution. Gumbo Pac, another group made up of Edwards’ supporters, also ran ads playing up Vitter’s prostitute problems. It worked. Enough Louisiana family values voters were unable to look past Vitter’s “very serious sin.”
The problem Edwards is facing now is that two things that got him elected last time no longer exist. None of his opponents has a major sex scandal to exploit, and he can no longer be viewed as an atypical Democrat. Edwards’ record clearly proves that other than on the issue of abortion and gun issue, the governor is indeed a typical liberal Democrat.
He created a half a million new government dependents by expanding Medicaid through Obamacare, approved $7 billion in new taxes, and tinkered with incentives designed to attract new industry to the state by changing the ITEP program. He’s also promoted efforts by his trial lawyer donors in targeting the oil and gas industry in court. And Edwards signed a controversial executive order concerning employment policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who work for government — a measure the courts eventually rejected as overreach.
Edwards has another problem. There are now 70,000 fewer Democrats in the state compared to when the governor ran in 2015. That’s a 6% drop.
Where did they go? Registered independents rose by 3%, but the majority of former Democrats joined the Republican Party. More than 91,000 addition Louisiana voters registered as Republicans since Edwards took office.
Not only will Edwards have to run for a second term with fewer Democrats in the state, he’ll also have to hang onto the ones remaining. Based on Edwards’ own social media pages, the governor infuriated a considerable number of his supporters by signing the fetal heartbeat bill, potentially making most abortions illegal if upheld by the courts.
Edwards’ social media pages were flooded with comments like, “I voted for you but won’t be making that same choice again.”
It appears Edwards is in real trouble if he wants a second term. But pollster Silas Lee disagrees. He told me things look positive for Edwards’ reelection chances.
“He’s looks to be in good shape. His approval numbers are encouraging,” said Lee. But Lee concedes that Edwards won’t have a sex scandal to exploit this time.
“Last time, a lot of the votes he received was anti-Vitter, maybe not necessarily pro-Edwards,” said Lee.
Recent polls show Edwards in a dead heat with Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham in a head-to-head race. That Abraham is virtually tied with Edwards before the campaign even heats up should concern the governor. The most common narrative floated by the state’s chattering class is that Edwards is a moderate. But other than the abortion issue and his pro-gun stance, his first term proves otherwise.
Edwards does have the power of incumbency, and that comes with loads of campaign cash. He’ll need most of it trying to convince the state’s mostly conservative voters that he is not who his first term tells us he is.
Email Dan Fagan at email@example.com.