If you’re following the nascent governor’s race on social media, you might get the impression that it’s already devolved into partisan sniping. Staffers and advocates for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards are going at his two Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, with abandon. Their supporters, naturally, are doing the same toward Edwards.
If I were the governor, I’d be hoping that all this is going right over most Louisiana voters’ heads.
The John Bel Edwards who won an unlikely victory in 2015, who has maintained decent polling numbers despite having signed a tax increase and who is sitting on a reported $10.2 million for his fall reelection, is not someone who harps on his opponents — although he can certainly punch back when he feels like it’s warranted. Instead, he’s mostly managed to float above petty politics.
That’s his brand. And really, that’s the only possible brand for a Democrat who hopes to succeed in a Republican state.
It hasn’t hurt that some of Edwards’ antagonists have been so small-minded. Just this week, House Speaker Taylor Barras, one of four Revenue Estimating Commission members, finally ended months of pointless posturing when he voted to recognize economist-forecast revenue so that the Legislature can go ahead and spend it. Barras leads the faction of the GOP that has consistently brought Washington-style politics into state government proceedings — even though, in the end, it took a Democratic governor and the Republican-majority Legislature to dig out of the giant financial hole that former Gov. Bobby Jindal left behind.
While his opponents cast him as a tax-and-spender, Edwards presents the end of the fiscal cliff as a mark of bipartisan sanity. And a new poll out of LSU’s Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs suggests many constituents agree; it found that voters are increasingly likely to believe that the state is heading in the right direction.
In other areas, the governor is making a point of hewing to the center.
His announced agenda for the new legislative session leans heavily on issues that are unlikely to inflame partisan tensions, such as human trafficking, cybersecurity, and enabling more high school students to get a leg up by taking classes for college credit. The list of sponsors for his 15 chosen bills includes eight Democrats and seven Republicans.
That’s nothing new. Edwards’ big criminal justice reform push had backing not just from social justice advocates but also from small-government libertarians and socially conservative evangelicals. His main priority for the current session, a modest teacher pay raise, has broad support in the LSU poll. It turns out so do some of his priorities that are generally associated with Democratic politics, including raising the minimum wage.
And on one of the issues that could drive a wedge between him and conservative voters, Edwards is unapologetic. In his opening address to the Legislature Monday, the governor touted his anti-abortion views and hailed news that the abortion rate in Louisiana is at a 10-year low.
Edwards is notably cautious on other potentially divisive social issues as well. He’s consistently refused to discuss his personal position on the death penalty, for example, despite Attorney General Jeff Landry’s ongoing attempts to corner him. Landry, a conservative Republican and regular Edwards critic, blames the governor for the fact that Louisiana hasn’t executed a death row inmate in years. Edwards’ responses tend to be strictly legalistic.
“The fact of the matter is that we cannot execute someone in the state of Louisiana today because the only legally prescribed manner set forth in state statute is unavailable to us,” he said recently.
Expect much more of this sort of thing as the part of the campaign aimed at the broader electorate progresses, no matter how divisive things get on Twitter.
Sidestepping partisanship as much as possible has worked so far for Edwards. It would make no sense to change course now.