The operating assumption of both Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone in this year’s election was that John Bel Edwards won in 2015 because of — shall we say, unusual? — circumstances like the sex scandal that troubled his runoff opponent David Vitter. That gave the governor’s office to a Democrat in an overwhelmingly Republican state.
Fluke no more, the jubilant supporters of the governor — many of them prominent Republicans — will say after a win by Edwards on Saturday.
But with a margin of about 40,000 votes of 1.5 million cast, the result was competitive. Rispone was a first-time candidate, pursuing an unorthodox and much-criticized social media strategy instead of seeing voters on the campaign trail; there was the occasional gaffe when he did emerge.
And he came very close against an incumbent governor. GOP gains in the Legislature also reached what may be a high-water mark, as white Democrats were almost wiped out.
Leaving aside the important question of when Louisiana will elect its first black governor — P.B.S. Pinchback briefly succeeded to the office without being elected in the 1870s — the bench of white Democrats with officeholding experience and other political credentials is now exceedingly thin.
Is John Bel Edwards the last Democrat?
For a while, probably.
His credentials for the job were themselves somewhat unusual. He was a white small-town Democrat coming from a family of sheriffs with deep connections to what remained of the old Edwin W. Edwards political machine. As a West Pointer and Army Ranger, his service to country was unimpeachable.
His positions on abortion and gun rights are almost exactly the opposite of the national Democratic Party — except in the disordered mind of President Donald Trump.
As a capable leader of Democrats in the state House, Edwards was able to be a foil for increasingly unpopular Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget cuts. Edwards ran while the term-limited Jindal’s ratings were in the toilet. In fact, he would run against Bobby again in 2019, tarring Abraham and Rispone with that record.
The historian Richard Brookhiser once said of presidents that there hasn’t been a good second term since James Monroe’s. A second term might be tough on Edwards’ reputation, as he will almost certainly face if not a recession then a correction in the longest-running economic expansion in the country’s history.
His options for a truly big and successful change in government like Medicaid expansion, achieved by executive order, are much more limited. And the bitter-enders who cannot read election returns — e.g., Attorney General Jeff Landry, already banging the anti-Edwards drum — will carry on a partisan war against the governor that will require skill to navigate.
But term limits are inexorable, and there will be a new governor come January 2024. With most of the obvious potential contenders being Republicans of varying stripes — Landry, members of Congress like Garret Graves of Baton Rouge and Mike Johnson of Minden, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser — where will a Democrat come from in fall 2023?
For the cynical, or realistic, that candidate will have to be a white Democrat. And given the political complexion of the Legislature and most other offices, he or she would likely be an officeholder of quite limited experience, or a self-funder like Rispone who emerges from the business world.
Of course, the capacity of the GOP to squander its advantages is still great. When a majority party embraces extreme positions — think Jindal's budgets, or left-wing Democrats in other states — it opens the way for a capable candidate of the other side.
But politics does require, as the failure of Rispone’s campaign suggested, seasoning in office and in the electoral process. Where does the Democrat of 2023 come from?
Rispone spent millions of his own money to run and got 49 percent. If a Democratic candidate might have to make a similar level of investment to get a similar result — and that would be a substantial and only moral victory — will there be someone willing to carry the Democratic banner?
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.