Down in the Weeds: Louisiana

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Here we have another unnecessary narrative from the mainstream media about elections in 2019 foretelling what will happen in 2020 on the federal level.  Yes… John Bel Edwards, the incumbent Democrat governor won his reelection bid.  That victory was not so much an endorsement of the Democratic brand in Louisiana than it was a vote of confidence for Edwards.  One has to face the facts here: Edwards is not your typical Democrat these days.  He is a pro-life Catholic.  He is a pro-gun graduate of West Point.  These are two major areas where he diverges from what the Democrats have become.

Louisiana holds a jungle primary with the top two vote getters advancing to a runoff should no one hit the 50% +1 mark in the primary.  In the run up to that primary, it was Edwards against Republicans Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone.  Rispone spent millions of his own wealth for a series of withering attacks not on Edwards, but Abraham.  He characterized the choice as between a liberal insider (Abrams) versus a conservative outsider (Rispone).  Abrahams noted, after he failed to advance to the runoff, that his campaign spent 15% of what the others had spent.  The northern Louisiana Congressman had a name recognition problem statewide to overcome which was exacerbated by the lack of funds.  In the runoff, Abraham voters did not run to Edwards en masse, but he picked up enough of them to make a difference.

For his part, Edwards waged a disciplined campaign.  President Trump had made three visits to the state in an effort to unseat Edwards.  The campaign decided they could not overcome a Presidential visit unless they made the race local, and that is exactly what they did.  Campaign manager Richard Carbo said there was no utility in combatting the leader of the free world when they campaign against you.  Instead, he urged Edwards to stay on message.

As for the Trump effect on this outcome, the analysis is murky.  Rispone, for example, tried to link himself to Trump since he was a businessman and a outsider.  The GOP has ruled Louisiana for decades now and this is the closest they came to nationalizing a statewide race.  But in the end, Trump and Rispone could not overcome the favorability numbers of Edwards.  Consultants to the Abraham campaign, however, noted that Trump did wake up a portion of the electorate and made the race a lot closer than most originally believed would happen.  But that consultant summed it up: “But the president wasn’t on the ballot and that’s a problem when the majority of your campaign has been about him.”  

The 2019 election showed the highest turnout by African-Americans in a statewide race since 1991 when Edwin Edwards squared off against David Duke.  Edwards in 2019 won by 40,000 votes in a state that cast 1.5 million votes for Governor this year.  Blacks comprise 31% of the electorate in Louisiana and he pulled in roughly 95% of the black vote.  Among women, the largest demographic bloc at 55%, it is estimated he won 56-59% of their vote.

For many years, it was the upstate rural parishes canceling out black voters with the Cajun contingent deciding the fate of candidates in statewide races.  Today, the Cajun vote is so solidly Republican that the Democrats have lost all hope there.  Instead, now it is the urban versus the rural parishes with the suburban parishes determining success.  Suburban parishes usually vote Republican but will cross party lines if one of two things happen: (1) the Republican is seen as weak or flawed, or (2) the Democrat is viewed as sufficiently conservative.  In the governors race in 2019, perhaps it is both factors that sealed an Edwards victory.

Republicans outnumber Democrats 2:1 in St. Tammany, but Edwards pulled 40% of the vote.  In Jefferson parish where there are roughly an equal number of both parties, Edwards garnered 56% of the vote.  He did not carry all the suburban parishes, just enough of them.  Edwards crushed Rispone in the four largest parishes and although he carried the next four largest, they were by considerably lower margins.  Overall in Louisiana in 2019, Republicans in total received 56% of the vote down ballot proving the GOP brand is alive and well.

Of course, Edwards’ victory gives the Democrats an important seat at the redistricting table.  Republicans hoped to win the race and consolidate their power.  However, what we saw was more moderate Republicans being ousted (some decided to retire due to term limits).  One Republican Edwards will miss is John Alario, the outgoing senate president who often compromised with Edwards and kept controversial legislation off the governor’s desk.    In his first term, most of the opposition to Edwards came from the lower house, not state senate.

Several observers of Louisiana politics claim the incoming legislature, which is controlled by the GOP, is perhaps the most conservative in 100 years.  Lionel Rainey, a key GOP consultant in the state, said, “We lost a huge battle with the governor’s race, but we’re ready to fight a war for the next four years, and our front line of defense is going to be the Louisiana Legislature.”

Two things are telling about Trump and his wading into this race given his three visits.  The first is that in the aftermath of the Edwards victory, Trump was silent on Twitter about the outcome.  In fact, he later called Edwards and congratulated him.  The second is that a day prior to the runoff on November 16, Trump visited Bossier City for a raucous rally.  Bossier City lies in the Fourth Congressional District.  That district showed the lowest turnout rate in the governor’s race.

Given the bruising fight between Rispone and Abraham in the primary, it is a wonder the GOP candidate came within 40,000 votes of beating Edwards.  Perhaps, in the end, Edwards- given his stances on abortion and guns- is one Democrat that Trump can work with.  He seemed to suggest such in his congratulatory call.  But if anyone thought that Edwards was going to have an easy four years ahead of him, they are seriously mistaken.  Edwards is an outlier in his own party and although they are “happy” they have a Democratic governor in Louisiana, they are also fully aware Edwards is not really “one of them” and that Louisiana remains a conservative stronghold.

Next: Arkansas and Tennessee