Memo to Gov. John Bel Edwards: lightning isn’t likely to strike twice.
When Democrat Edwards captured the state's top office in 2015, he succeeded because he steered debate away from policy and toward hookers. His premier Republican opponent, then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, had all but admitted to past dalliances with prostitutes, and two other major GOP contenders — one of whom, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, now works for Edwards — zestfully joined him in impugning Vitter.
Having no record to run on — serving as minority party leader in the House of Representatives and a couple of bucks will get you a cup of coffee — made it easy for Edwards to define the race primarily as a referendum on Vitter’s trustworthiness rather than basing the contest on issues. The attacks against Vitter from Edwards and other candidates maneuvered him and Vitter into the runoff, where he prevailed.
However, 2019 isn’t 2015, as Edwards now has a record to defend. And it isn’t pretty. Since taking office, among others increases, he's joined with a GOP-dominated Legislature to hike general sales tax rates 0.45 percent, costing consumers $500 million more a year. The sick and insured pay more than $200 million more yearly to prop up Edwards' signature priority, a money-losing Medicaid expansion. Together, these changes fueled a $5.7 billion, or 40 percent, increase in state-generated dollars spent on government per year (on top of a 56 percent increase in federal dollars spent).
Since Edwards took office (give or take a few months), Louisiana has dragged the rear compared to most states in per capita income growth (42nd), state gross domestic product growth (39th), and unemployment rate (third highest, up from seventh when Edwards was inaugurated). His policies have created a whopping 4,000 jobs while the state’s population has decreased around 5,000, or the seventh-worst growth rate among the states.
This stinks, forcing Edwards to find a way to deflect attention from his awful performance. So he wants to replicate his 2015 scorched earth campaign, this time against the leading Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.
It started from the word “go.” When Abraham announced his candidacy, Edwards combined both pettiness and hypocrisy by insinuating Abraham would neglect his constituents while campaigning for governor as a sitting congressman. Keep in mind that while he served in the Legislature, Edwards crisscrossed the state for two years stumping for governor, back then seemingly unconcerned with how that affected his constituents.
More recently, it emerged that Abraham changed his mind on donating his congressional salary to charity after his first term. House rules disallowed income outside the House job to fewer than $28,000 annually. Even though Abraham didn’t make that promise in his 2016 and 2018 campaigns, Edwards on social media called this a quietly broken pledge.
Edwards’ response is particularly rich coming from somebody who very loudly broke two major campaign promises. Not only did Gov. Honor Code raise taxes after rejecting that option during his bid, he also never brought stability to Louisiana’s fiscal structure as he said he would, instead saddling Louisianans with a series of temporary, regressive fixes that don’t achieve any long-term, permanent reform.
And does Edwards really wish to take a route of personal attacks against Abraham, a fellow former Army officer who spends some weekends ministering to the sick, flying for the Air Force or Coast Guard, or transporting for free by air severely ill people? Does Edwards really want to publicize that Abraham donated some $350,000 of salary, and invite questions about how much he has given to charity while in office?
What worked in 2015 looks nasty and cheap in 2019. Edwards can’t hide a record of failure behind character assassination attempts.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.