Numerically speaking, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards gets to claim a mandate.
That would be true for anyone who clobbered a well-known, well-heeled opponent 56 percent to 44 percent, even if the winning candidate belonged to the dominant political party. Given Louisiana’s decidedly Republican leanings these days, the Democratic landslide would seem to carry extra weight.
So here’s the question: A mandate to do what, exactly?
Not many particulars come to mind, given that the race focused more on character than policy. And the fact that Edwards is facing GOP majorities in the House and Senate limits his options and will force him to pick his fights with care.
But Edwards did talk about a handful of specifics on the campaign trail, and this week, even as he promised a gathering of Council for A Better Louisiana supporters that he’d govern from the center rather than the far left, he doubled down.
One of Edwards’ promises, Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, should happen sooner rather than later, once concerns over the wording of a previously passed legislative resolution allowing hospitals to pay the state’s matching costs are worked out.
Although vanquished opponent David Vitter used Edwards’ stance to link him to President Barack Obama (even though he too entertained accepting the expansion), Edwards skillfully sold the idea as both morally urgent and financially sound, given that Louisianians’ tax dollars already are being used to insure residents of other states. More importantly, several centrist and conservative-leaning business and civic groups, CABL included, have endorsed the idea. Plus, Edwards can accomplish this goal largely on his own, without legislative approval.
More challenging will be a pair of additional campaign planks he mentioned at the CABL luncheon — raising the state minimum wage and closing the pay gap between men and women, which will hinge on changing the rules for suing over gender discrimination.
“I am not going to back away from any of that,” he said. “Those things will improve Louisiana, as well.”
Yet despite apparent support — or at least lack of fierce opposition — from the electorate at large, such measures will be difficult to get through the Legislature. To pass these measures, Edwards would need to peel off some Republican votes, over what surely will be heavy pressure from business lobbyists and from party purists who’ll want to hold a hard line.
As with Medicaid, Edwards also can pick some low-hanging fruit on social issues on his own. While he’s no social progressive, he’s vowed to reissue an executive order Gov. Kathleen Blanco enacted and Gov. Bobby Jindal abandoned, to protect gay and lesbian state employees from discrimination. He won’t try to shut down Planned Parenthood, and he won’t fight the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling allowing same-sex marriage. This, too, counts as governing from the middle and will be a welcome change to more liberal Democrats who won’t have to play as much defense.
These things are all worth watching. But none will tell us as much about how the next four years will go than how Edwards and the Legislature approach broader money matters.
If Edwards can claim a mandate on fiscal issues, it’s to fill the billion-dollar budget hole, to fix structural problems that have created shortfall after shortfall and to fund needs such as higher education and infrastructure. Based on his populist rhetoric, it’s also to shore up the safety net for poorer Louisianians by pushing things like an expanded earned income tax credit.
Candidates rarely get too precise about who’s going to wind up footing the bill in such situations, and Edwards was no exception. But now that the election’s behind him, he and his team are going to have to get specific quickly. That means winners and losers will emerge, and philosophical divides will open over whether business or individuals — and which businesses and individuals — should take the hit.
All eyes will be on Edwards in the coming weeks to see where he comes down on those questions.
And come February, once a special legislative session convenes, all eyes will be on the Republicans in the Legislature, to see if they and the new governor can agree on what governing from the center even means.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.