Advocate reporter Tyler Bridges’ account of Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards’ resounding victory ended with a virtual tour of election night celebrations, from the Monteleone Hotel suite in the French Quarter, where Edwards had gathered with family and close friends, to nearby Galatoire’s, where Republican Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand toasted the rare Democratic triumph in conservative Louisiana, to the jam-packed Monteleone ballroom, where a brass band played “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
As I read the terrific story in Sunday’s paper, a different song popped into my head. I could easily imagine the gleeful crowds breaking out into a mass rendition of “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!”
Or make that two witches.
Edwards’ win was huge news, but just as amazing was that it marked the end of the era in which outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Sen. David Vitter dominated Louisiana politics.
Jindal will end his eight-year tenure by touring the state to talk about his accomplishments, but his legacy was set in the days leading up to the election, when he finally acknowledged that the presidential campaign he’d always prioritized over his official duties was dead on arrival.
Jindal’s failure on the national level, and his paltry 20 percent approval rating back home, mark a stunning fall from grace. Just four years earlier, the governor had been so strong that he managed to win reelection without attracting a major opponent. He also played a huge role in electing a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education majority that would back his big school revamp, although he would go on to break with this group when he dropped his support for the Common Core education standards.
Vitter, who lost to Edwards by 12 points in a state that hadn’t elected a Democrat to any office since 2008, will serve out the last year of his six-year term, but then he too will be history. He had no choice but to retire, given the spectacular rebuke by voters who were sick of his scorched-earth tactics, personal issues, hard-line approach or some combination of the three.
Before all that, though, Vitter had done more than just about anybody to give the Legislature its Republican majority. His 1995 term limits bill cleared out the old guard and made way for a new, conservative generation of lawmakers (Vitter also leaned on conservative Democrats to switch or face challenges from the right). His allies included the likes of fellow U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and Treasurer John Kennedy.
And don’t forget to factor in the imminent departure from high office of Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, something of a throwback to the days when Republicans weren’t expected to pass ideological purity tests — or endorse across party aisles, as Dardenne did in the Edwards-Vitter runoff after finishing fourth in the primary.
Dardenne wasn’t the type to assemble a posse, but he showed his own strength in 2011 when he survived a challenge by fellow Republican Billy Nungesser, who ran with Vitter’s strong backing. Same for his like-minded ally Tom Schedler, who beat Vitter-backed Jim Tucker for Secretary of State.
With all three on their way out, the question is, who’s in charge now?
Probably not anyone in the Legislature. While some Republicans will surely try to freeze Edwards out and deny him a record on which to run for reelection, many appear relieved to turn the page from the divisive Jindal days and eager to work with Edwards to tackle the budget crisis.
The House’s Republican leader, Lance Harris, seems to have already come up short in his attempt to ensure that the chamber’s top job will stay in party hands. Despite the GOP majority, Democrat Walt Leger, Edwards’ choice for speaker, has apparently gathered the votes to win the coveted post. Over in the Senate, GOP caucus leader Danny Martiny, a Newell Normand ally and a longtime Vitter nemesis, endorsed Edwards in the days before the runoff, and he wore a big grin on election night. So he too is an unlikely opposition leader.
Up in Congress, Steve Scalise is one likely successor, but his post as majority whip will keep him busy with national politics for the foreseeable future. Two other House members are likely to run for Vitter’s seat, so keep an eye on Charles Boustany and John Fleming, along with other Senate hopefuls such as Kennedy and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. Another name on many to-watch lists is Garret Graves, the first-term Baton Rouge congressman.
Whoever eventually emerges as the GOP’s new top dog, or dogs, can learn plenty from Jindal and Vitter’s considerable electoral accomplishments. They’ll have even more to learn by studying how both of these bright, ambitious politicians managed to squander it all.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.