The Louisiana governor runoff: no holds barred between John Bel Edwards and David Vitter_lowres

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat (left) will face off Nov. 21 against U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the Louisiana gubernatorial election.

Louisiana’s statewide primary election on Oct. 24 provided lots of fireworks and a few surprises. In the governor’s race, state Rep. John Bel Edwards garnered an impressive 40 percent of the vote while erstwhile frontrunner David Vitter sputtered into second place with a mere 23 percent. Given the events and revelations of the primary’s final 10 days, if the election were this coming Saturday instead of this past Saturday, Vitter might have finished out of the money entirely. Timing is everything.

Here are the unofficial returns, according to the Secretary of State’s office:

John Bel Edwards, 40 percent

David Vitter, 23 percent

Scott Angelle, 19 percent

Jay Dardenne, 15 percent

All others, 3 percent

Before I dissect Saturday’s returns, I want to say that the gubernatorial runoff is anything but a foregone conclusion. Edwards’s strong finish gives him needed momentum going into the four-week runoff (the general election is Nov. 21), but anyone who underestimates David Vitter is a fool. Louisiana’s senior senator may be the most disliked politician in the state, but he’s also the most capable when it comes to waging electoral combat. And while Edwards clearly has momentum on his side, history in on Vitter’s side. Louisiana hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2008.

That could change by Nov. 21. Indeed, the Edwards-Vitter runoff will be the ultimate test of the notion that a Dem cannot win statewide in Louisiana. Edwards is as close as the Democrats can get to a perfect candidate for governor - West Point grad, U.S. Army Ranger and 82nd Airborne commander, solid legislative record, history of working well with Republicans as well as Democrats, Catholic, pro-life, pro-gun, rural but with appeal to urban voters. Vitter, meanwhile, is about the most flawed Republican you could imagine - disliked intensely even by members of his own party, self-righteous, hypocritical, ruthless, hounded by scandals (note the plural these days). If you tried to invent a tainted candidate, you’d be hard pressed to come up with somebody worse than Vitter.


Yet, for all that, Vitter still has one quality that could overcome all his drawbacks: He’s a Republican running against a Democrat in Louisiana.

For all the above reasons, I’m calling it a toss-up at this point.

Both men have clear paths to victory, but those are very different paths. It all depends on how the runoff narrative unfolds. If Vitter can make it all about Obama, all the time, he will win. If Edwards can hang Bobby Jindal around Vitter, pick up some GOP endorsements - particularly that of Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne (or even if Dardenne stays neutral) - and get the media to focus on Vitter’s recent scandals, his refusal to debate and his obsessive fear of unscripted encounters with the media and the general public, he will win. There’s no way to predict which narrative will take hold.

For the past month or so, it has been apparent that Edwards would lead the primary. Black voters and white Democrats began coalescing behind him, and he peaked at just the right time. Considering that black turnout on Oct. 24 was as much as 10 percentage points lower than white turnout (according to UNO political scientist Dr. Ed Chervenak), Edwards’ 40 percent showing is astoundingly good for him. If black and white turnout had been equal, he would have gotten close to 43 percent.

Vitter, on the other hand, has been going in the wrong direction since June. In the spring, the Southern Media and Opinion Research poll had Vitter leading the pack with 38 percent, which after discounting “undecided” voters was actually 45 percent of the decided vote. His 23 percent tally in the primary was barely half that.

What happened to Vitter? Two things:

First, the vote that all candidates got in the spring surveys included a significant level of “soft” support. LSU pollster Dr. Michael Henderson said at that time that more than 70 percent of the state’s voters were not really paying attention to the election. He said then that most polls reflected name recognition more than committed support. Saturday’s results proved him correct; close to half of Vitter’s support was “soft” and melted away.

Second, as the campaign slowly got started over the summer, voters who weren’t paying attention before got reminded of things about Vitter that they didn’t like, and many who leaned his way in the spring peeled off in favor of other candidates. As a result, Vitter went from looking invincible - or at least inevitable - to limping into the runoff 17 points behind Edwards and only 4 points ahead of Angelle.

A closer look at some key parishes reveals more bad news for Vitter. For example, in his home base of Jefferson Parish, he got only 38 percent of the vote - and Edwards got 34 percent. In the runoff, Vitter will need to beat Edwards with at least 60 percent of the vote in Jefferson - plus 65-70 percent in ultra-conservative St. Tammany - in order to offset the monolithic vote that Edwards is likely to get in Orleans Parish.

Beating Edwards two-to-one (or better) in St. Tammany is doable, but right now Vitter looks pretty weak in his home parish. Moreover, elected officials in Jefferson are among Vitter’s staunchest detractors, starting with Sheriff Newell Normand, the guy whose deputies arrested the “investigator” that Vitter’s campaign hired to spy on plaintiff lawyer John Cummings. Normand was at the table with Cummings and others in the coffee shop where “Spygate” went down.

Don’t be surprised to see this become a big deal. Normand’s investigation into Spygate is far from over. If Vitter’s investigator is charged with a felony, it will be big news all over the state, no matter how matter-of-factly Team Vitter tries to downplay it. Louisiana law also allows Cummings to file a civil lawsuit over the incident. If this story becomes the early narrative of the runoff, Vitter is in trouble.

Let’s get back to the primary results. Vitter appears to have gotten less than 3 percent of the black vote, and his chances of getting much more than that in the runoff are slim now that he has told everyone that Edwards is the next Barack Obama. The senator’s low numbers among blacks was no surprise, but his 28-30 percent of the white vote had to be disappointing to him. He’ll need to get close to 70 percent of the white vote in the runoff to win, which probably explains why he wasted no time Saturday night trying to hang Obama around Edwards’ neck.

For his part, Edwards likewise wasted no time hanging Gov. Bobby Jindal around Vitter’s neck. The senator endorsed Jindal every time he ran for governor.

Edwards’ numbers on Saturday were impressive all around: he finished first or second in every major area of the state; he got 85 percent or slightly more of the black vote; and he got 23-24 percent of the white vote against three white Republicans. If he gets an additional 8 percent of the white vote in the runoff, he should win - assuming he gets another 10 percent among blacks (which is likely) and assuming black turnout is roughly equal to or not much lower than white turnout on Nov. 21, which also is very possible.

The key for Edwards at this stage is to capture the runoff narrative and maintain momentum by picking up endorsements. A big one could come as early as Monday (Oct. 26) from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association. Edwards’ brother is the sheriff in Tangipahoa Parish and Normand certainly doesn’t want to see the organization go with Vitter. If the sheriffs group (which has a substantial number of GOP members) backs Edwards early, it will send a clear signal to local officials across the state that it’s safe to back the Democrat against Vitter.

Between the two also-rans in the governor’s race, Dardenne is the most crucial for Edwards. The lieutenant governor’s GOP supporters are the most moderate and thus may not have a problem choosing Edwards over Vitter. Dardenne undoubtedly had some Democrat supporters as well, as did Angelle, and many of those could easily go to Edwards.

It’s impossible to predict what either Dardenne or Angelle will do in the coming weeks, but their tone on Oct. 24 did not seem warm toward Vitter. In at least one debate during the primary, Dardenne said he would not endorse anyone in the runoff if he doesn’t make it. If Dardenne stays neutral, it would be almost as good as an endorsement for Edwards because it would effectively tell his supporters that Vitter is unacceptable.

Now let’s look at turnout. In the primary, the total turnout was only about 38 percent - below even the dreariest predictions before Election Day. Bad weather across most of the state may have been a factor, but other factors also contributed. Turnout was even lower in urban areas, according to the Secretary of State’s office. If turnout evens out on Nov. 21, that would favor Edwards because he’ll get the lion’s share of urban (read: black) voters.

Now consider something that’s normally unthinkable: What if black turnout is higher than white turnout? How could that be?

It’s possible, though not something one can predict at this point, that white turnout would be suppressed because of concerns among whites - particularly Republicans - about Vitter’s association with Spygate and prostitutes. A lot of Republicans may stay home because they won’t vote for a Dem and they just can’t bring themselves to vote for Vitter. Then again, they could always hold their noses. We’ll see.

I’ve talked about the runoff narrative. A lot will depend on the answers to the following questions, which no one can provide at this stage:

• Can Vitter make it all about Obama & liberal Democrats?

• Will Spygate stay in the headlines? Might the feds take an interest because of federal laws against certain forms of eavesdropping?

• Will more prostitution stories emerge about Vitter? If so, will the mainstream press pick them up? Will voters care?

• Will Edwards get enough money early enough to compete with Vitter on TV and hang Jindal around him? Do Louisiana voters really dislike Jindal more than they dislike Obama?

• How many TV debates will there be? Will Vitter show up for more than just 1? Will the press finally blast him - daily - if he doesn’t?

• If the sheriffs association endorses Edwards, will that get other local leaders (especially Republicans) to back him?

There are lots of possible narratives. Right now, any one of them - or one that hasn’t presented itself yet - could take hold.

This much is certain: it’s going to be a no-holds-barred fight.