News & Politics

Edwards Beats Vitter in Louisiana Governor's Runoff Race

Louisiana Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards addresses supporters at his election night watch party in New Orleans, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. Edwards won the runoff election for Louisiana governor Saturday, defeating the once-heavy favorite, Republican David Vitter, and handing the Democrats their first statewide victory since 2008. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

State Representative John Bel Edwards handily defeated GOP Senator David Vitter in a runoff to determine the next governor of Louisiana.

It was a dirty, savage race as Edwards continuously brought up the eight-year-old Vitter scandal involving a prostitute while Vitter was accused of thuggery during the primary for hiring a private detective to spy on opponents.

A West Point graduate who served in the Legislature for eight years, Edwards led the primary with 40 percent of the vote, built up big leads in the polls and bulked up his fundraising during the runoff. The Democrat emphasized his conservative views on topics like abortion and guns throughout the campaign, in order to stave off concerns that he was too liberal for Louisiana.

“John Bel, as much as possible, attempted to identify with Republicans,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La.

Edwards attracted a surprising number of endorsements from law enforcement groups, such as the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, that are more inclined to favor Republicans. The Louisiana State Troopers Association, which rarely endorses gubernatorial candidates, backed Edwards.

The outcome of the election, however, may have turned more on Vitter’s weaknesses than Edwards’ appeal. The senator’s years-old prostitution scandal and difficult relationships with several Republicans in the state proved to be too much to overcome. Vitter has had “high negatives” in political polling for years — meaning many voters have an unfavorable view of him — but that hadn’t kept him from winning campaigns — until now.

After winning re-election to his Senate seat in 2010, Vitter had been regarded nationally as one of those rare politicians able to survive an embarrassing sex scandal. But Louisiana voters apparently care more about the personal history of the next governor than a member of Congress. His connection to prostitution dampened enthusiasm for him, particularly among Christian conservatives, once his most ardent supporters.

The senator was also never fully able to unite the Republican party behind his candidacy following the primary. One of Vitter’s Republican primary opponents, Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, ended up endorsing Edwards. The other major Republican primary candidate, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, refused to endorse anyone, which was seen as a rejection of Vitter’s candidacy.

“I came up short,” said Vitter, before announcing he wouldn’t even seek re-election to his Senate seat next year.

So, does an Edwards victory signal a Democratic resurgence in the south? It depends on your point of view. The Democrats have totally disappeared in Louisiana, not having won a statewide race since 2008. They only have one congressional representative.

In that context, even one victory by one Democrat is great news. But Vitter was a fatally flawed candidate, disliked by the voters and especially conservative Republicans. The fact that his major Republican opponent endorsed the Democrat couldn’t have helped much either.

You’re not going to find a more conservative Democrat in American than John Bel Edwards. But in the south, Democrats have continuously put up GOP-lite candidates and seen them go down to defeat. What’s different this time? Besides the aforementioned dislike of Vitter by the voters, the unpopularity of Bobby Jindal played a role too. Jindal is leaving a state in fiscal shambles, with a $500 million deficit this year and a billion in the red next year. The prospect of increased taxes could not have helped Vitter with the voters.

Vitter’s loss complicates the race to succeed him in the Senate, but even a relatively unknown Senate GOP candidate would have to be favored over almost any Democrat. It’s not a safe seat by any means, but you would have to mark it down as leaning Republican.

As for the rest of the south, the Democrats have a chance to pick up one Senate seat. The Florida Senate race is wide open with Marco Rubio not running for re-election. Otherwise the landscape still looks hugely tilted toward Republicans.