In 2015, then-state Rep. John Bel Edwards stunned the Louisiana political world by walloping U.S. Sen. David Vitter, considered at the time to be Louisiana’s most strategically gifted Republican and a man who’d never before lost an election.
In 2019, now-Gov. Edwards is looking to beat another major GOP figure in the state: his predecessor in office, Bobby Jindal.
Well, not literally.
Jindal is now out of the business and seldom seen at political events, after having spent much of his term in office positioning himself for a presidential run that went nowhere fast. Jindal squandered his initial popularity by constantly traveling out of state and pushing a policy agenda that was aimed at signaling an absolutist fiscal conservatism — but that actually left the state with a desperate budget hole. By the time he was readying to leave office, his approval rating had dropped as low as 20 percent.
And, as of now, the Democratic incumbent is set to face two lesser-known Republicans in the October primary, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, although one or two more could still jump in.
Yet Edwards, who formally kicked off his election bid last week, appears bent on running less against them than against Jindal’s record. The strategy appears to be to define his challengers in the public’s mind as politicians who not only supported the former governor, but who would take the state back to the way it was when he was in charge.
Edwards all but came out and said so in his announcement video.
He opened the three-minute launch by talking about putting Louisiana first, a phrase designed to contrast with Jindal’s play to parlay the governor’s job into something bigger. He talked of the $2 billion shortfall he inherited from “the previous administration.” Speaking of his opponents and the outside money groups that he expects to indirectly support them, Edwards said that “we must never forget what their biggest and most sincere complaint is: They aren’t happy with where we are today, because they prefer where we were three years ago.”
He did so more directly in an editorial board meeting with The Advocate last week, where he basically labeled his opponents as Jindal enthusiasts.
It’s a theme that Edwards is likely to stick with throughout the year, and it provides a nice segue into a discussion of his accomplishments.
The big one is the hard-fought solution to fiscal crisis, in the form of a sales tax hike that started out at one cent and eventually dropped to less than half that much. Edwards casts that as a tax cut while his critics call it an increase, and it’s possible to argue that one either way. But it’s hard to dispute the benefits of budget stability, and the end of governing by crisis.
Nor is anyone likely to land a punch on higher education, which took huge hits under Jindal and which Edwards has prioritized. And Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Jindal treated as a partisan boondoggle and refused to enact, is another well-earned bragging point. Edwards accepted the expansion, which is largely federally funded, on his first day in office, and frequently points to both the health benefits to Louisianans and the financial benefits to the state’s bottom line.
None of this is to say that Edwards doesn’t have vulnerabilities, and his Democratic party affiliation in a Republican state is certainly one of them. Yet this strategy basically channels that most popular of American Republicans, Ronald Reagan, who famously asked voters in his 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter whether they were better off then than they were four years ago.
In essence, Edwards is asking the same question about the state. And he’s asking it like someone who’s pretty sure he knows the answer.