In this election, Edwards was able to overcome the President’s three visits to Louisiana because of some unique circumstances. While Donald Trump is still popular in Louisiana, so is John Bel Edwards. Voters in Louisiana gave Edwards a 50%+ approval rating in the final polls, even after months of political attacks from his GOP opponents.
There are many reasons for the popularity of the Governor. He added almost 500,000 people to the Medicaid rolls in Louisiana. He expanded rights for the LGBT community and supported the passage of teacher pay raises. As Governor, he was able to use his vast powers to award grants and green light expensive state projects that benefited people across Louisiana. It is not a coincidence that the last incumbent to lose a Governor’s race in Louisiana was Buddy Roemer in 1991.
It also was very helpful to Edwards to face highly beatable opponents. This happened in his first gubernatorial election in 2015. In that race, he defeated then United States Senator David Vitter in the runoff by a huge 57-43% margin.
Vitter was a weak opponent because he was tainted by a prostitution scandal. He also was disliked by many of his fellow Republicans. In 2015, Edwards would have probably lost the runoff election if he had to face either of the other two Republican candidates in the race, former Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne or former Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle.
The primary election was so contentious among the Republican candidates that neither Angelle nor Dardenne endorsed Vitter in the runoff against Edwards. In fact, Dardenne supported Edwards and later was appointed to be the Commissioner of Administration.
In this election, Edwards had the luxury of facing two relatively unknown Republican opponents. Businessman Eddie Rispone of Baton Rouge was established in some political circles as a donor and activist, but he was a newcomer as a candidate for office. He poured millions of dollars of his own money into the race just to acquire name recognition.
The other Republican candidate was Fifth District U.S. Congressman Ralph Abraham of Alto, who represented north Louisiana. The voters in the rest of Louisiana were unfamiliar with Abraham, who was in his third term in Congress. Abraham lacked the necessary funding to become known throughout the rest of the state and mount a truly competitive race for Governor. Thus, it was predictable that Rispone made the runoff against Edwards.
It was certainly easier for Edwards to face Rispone in the runoff than some of the other Republican statewide elected officials who decided not to enter the race. U.S. Senator John Kennedy, Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser, Attorney General Jeff Landry and State Treasurer John Schroder decided to maintain their current positions instead of challenging Edwards. Any of them would have been a stronger runoff opponent against Edwards than Rispone for they had already been elected to statewide office.
Another potentially strong candidate would have been 1st District Congressman Steve Scalise of Metairie, who serves as the House Republican Whip. Scalise would have been a very difficult candidate for Edwards to face. In fact, President Trump used a ride on Air Force One to try to convince Scalise to enter the race. It was to no avail since Scalise decided to stay in Congress with the hopes of eventually being elected Majority Leader or Speaker of the House if the GOP takes back control of the lower chamber.
While Edwards was indeed fortunate with his opponents in both of his victories, his talent as a candidate cannot be overlooked. He performed well in the debates and his ability as a communicator has greatly improved during his time as Governor. He ran an aggressive campaign that attacked his GOP opponents on issues such as Medicaid expansion, teacher pay raises, and school lunches.
Not only did Rispone not effectively respond to the attacks from Edwards and the Gumbo PAC, an outside group that was very active in the race, but his campaign did not appropriately exploit the many issues that were vulnerabilities for Governor Edwards. For example, Louisiana is the only state in the nation to lose jobs in the last year and is one of only eight states to lose population. Many families have been split due to the poor economic conditions in the state. This situation has created tremendous hardships throughout Louisiana.
Other issues that could have been addressed more forcefully by Rispone include the expansion of the state budget by $7 billion and the huge increase in state sales taxes. The surplus that the state is currently enjoying is due to the excess taxes that are collected on the citizens. In addition, the Governor’s cherished criminal justice reform was very controversial and many of the almost 2,000 prisoners released onto the streets of Louisiana were later arrested, some for serious offenses such as murder.
In the end, Edwards did enough in his campaign to prevail, despite the President’s active involvement. It helped that his opponent was inexperienced and ran a rather unimpressive campaign. While Edwards has formidable political skills, he has been quite fortunate in both of his victories to have faced relatively weak opposition.
Jeff Crouere is a native New Orleanian and his award winning program, “Ringside Politics,” airs locally at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and at 10:00 p.m. Sundays on PBS affiliate WLAE-TV, Channel 32, and from 7-11 a.m. weekdays on WGSO 990-AM & www.Wgso.com. He is a political columnist, the author of America's Last Chance and provides regular commentaries on the Jeff Crouere YouTube channel and on www.JeffCrouere.com. For more information, email him at [email protected]