There’s a big election on the ballot next year, for Louisiana governor.
There’s also a big question that might as well be. How much does party matter when voters pick a governor?
Two Republicans have now announced they’ll challenge Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in October, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham. The state’s higher-profile GOP figures, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry, have said they won’t run, but another one or two or five Republicans could eventually join the field. No matter how that all shakes out, we’re looking at either an outright Edwards primary win or a D-versus-R runoff.
In Louisiana, we know how that story generally ends.
The last three Republican presidential nominees all scored roughly 58 percent of the vote. In 2016, Kennedy got 61 percent versus Foster Campbell for an open Senate seat. In 2014, Republican Bill Cassidy faced Democrat Mary Landrieu, a three-term Senate incumbent with a long record of sending federal resources back home, and beat her 56 percent to 44 percent.
Elections for statewide offices in Baton Rouge usually follow the same storyline. Other than the governorship, every one of those jobs is now held by a Republican, and it’s been a while since Democrats were even able to field competitive candidates.
Edwards, of course, is the most glaring of exceptions. He beat U.S. Sen. David Vitter by twelve points in 2015. Much has been said since then, by me and many others, about the two candidates’ particular strengths and weaknesses.
But there’s also something else going on here. Governor’s races, I’d argue, really are different.
Those consistent national results follow a distinct pattern: In our ever-more polarized country, people tend to vote for their own team, not only for president but also in Senate elections that increasingly focus on whether the candidates are with or against the president.
For down-ballot statewide races as well as many local contests, the candidates’ parties can act as shorthand, helping voters who might not know much else figure out who’s more in sync with their views.
People do pay a lot of attention to governor races, though, and Louisiana isn’t the only place where the results have been surprising. Two reliably Democratic states, Massachusetts and Maryland, just re-elected Republican governors; in fact, polls show that Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker and Maryland’s Larry Hogan consistently rank among the country’s most popular chief executives. And Louisiana isn’t the only red state to have voted blue in recent years. Just last month, Kansas narrowly chose a Democratic governor.
With the most prominent potential contender officially out of the race, Louisiana Republicans appear to be left without a well-known figure to…
Louisiana and Kansas have one more thing in common. Both were previously led by Republican governors, Bobby Jindal and Sam Brownback, who put their ideologically conservative talk into action, most notably when it came to state finances. And both wound up their tenures with approval ratings from their own supposedly like-minded voters in the basement.
So why the pattern? One convincing argument is that voters look to governors to be moderating forces, to pull government back toward the center or at least act as a check on the dominant party. A related theory is that the issues a governor handles hit people close to home, whether we’re talking about funding for their kids’ educations or the viability of the local hospital or badly-needed aid for people with severe disabilities or basic government efficiency. It’s much harder to fall back on strict ideology when these things are front and center.
Yet another is that all these successful governors have something in common: They each established a certain healthy distance from their own national parties. Baker and Hogan, for example, have not exactly embraced President Donald Trump, as most of their Senate cohorts have. And Edwards has gone out of his way to build a relationship with a Republican president who is popular among his own constituents. He’s certainly been invited to the White House a lot.
None of this guarantees that Edwards will have an easy ride to reelection next year. But the fact that it could very well happen again does tell us something — and not just about him.