BAYHAM: Setting The Stage For An All-Out Runoff War

When State Representative John Bel Edwards entered the race for governor back in February 2013 (!), nobody thought he would finish first in the primary.

At that time he was considered a place holder for a much stronger Democratic candidate who would not jump in the race until later, specifically New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu.

In fact, the national GOP was even convinced of this as they weighed investing in attack ads on a politician who had not even declared his candidacy. Even Edwards was worried about the prospect of being upstaged by Landrieu, publicly sniping at a possible run by a member of the state’s most prominent political family.

Yet the Amite legislator and serial Bobby Jindal critic hustled together a respectable warchest, built confidence in his candidacy, dissuaded intra-party rivals, weaved an admirable narrative and managed to consolidate the Democratic base while making significant inroads with independents and moderate Republicans to finish within a few decimal points of 40% in the Louisiana gubernatorial primary.

For a party whose last two forays for governor resembled something out of a Three Stooges short, candidate Edwards brought electoral credibility back to Louisiana Democrats less than a year removed from the humiliation they received in the US Senate race.

The Republican side looked more like a UFC match than a pie-fight. The presumed frontrunner US Senator David Vitter walked into the race with major endorsements from national and state officials- a few of whom eying the vacant seat Governor-elect Vitter would be leaving in the US Senate. Vitter was well-funded, both his campaign and his super PAC.

He also had a giant target on his back.

Democrats calculated that Vitter was almost certain to make the runoff and trained their own super PAC dollars on keeping him as far below Edwards in the primary. Vitter’s Republican rivals Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle knew that any shot they had of making a runoff would come out of Vitter’s hide and did what they needed to do to bring his numbers back down to earth.

Dardenne had initially tried to sell himself to moderates and Democrats as Vitter’s worst nightmare in a runoff; when those voters drifted to Edwards anyway, the lieutenant governor wheeled his message around to sell Republicans that he was in fact Edwards’ worst nightmare in a runoff.

Though Dardenne was likely right on both counts, a Louisiana primary with a low turnout is not kind to centrist politicians as everyone’s second choice got stuck in fourth at 15%.

Angelle used an opposite strategy, billing himself as the best conservative alternative to Vitter. With Vitter being pummeled on all sides, particularly with “enhanced” details about an old personal scandal that were trotted out with great fanfare by the press before being quietly retracted, Angelle struck political gold- blazing past Dardenne and trailing the Republican frontrunner by a mere 4 points.

An Early View of the Runoff

The 17-point spread between Edwards and Vitter is giving Republicans heart-palpitations, which is understandable when considering where Vitter started off the gubernatorial campaign (polling in the high 30s) and where he finished in the primary, 23%.

However this is a result of Vitter having to fend off attacks from all sides in a divided Republican field.   Dardenne has a sizable base in the Baton Rouge area where he served as a state senator for many years while Angelle is a powerhouse with the Acadiana vote, carrying Lafayette with over 60%.   Even though Louisiana is a conservative state a sliced up conservative electorate can only be cut up so much.

The total Republican vote for governor in Louisiana was 57%. There were two other Democrats on the ballot besides Edwards, Cary Deaton (1%) and S.L. Simpson (.6%). Deaton was the lawyer for a plantiff who had filed suit trying to block the removal of one of the post-Reconstruction monuments in New Orleans the city had tried to remove from public view (and is trying again).

Also worth noting is the combined Republican vote for lieutenant governor was 66%.

Because Edwards wasn’t blocking anyone’s access to the runoff, nobody had laid a glove on the Democratic candidate in months; something that will change immediately.

On one hand Democrats can claim that they have room to grow by expanding their base vote’s participation from the primary, which was considered low. However, an argument can made that some of Edwards’ primary vote is soft, as he attracted some support by virtue of being the one candidate nobody was saying anything bad about in the first round.

The media is going to do their damndest to stampede the state’s voters into thinking that the runoff is a fait accompli, something Vitter’s team needs to answer quickly.

The first step is by consolidating the Republican votes that went to his rivals (and a few that went to Edwards), with or without the blessing of those candidates. As Angelle framed his candidacy as a conservative, most of those who backed him should shift over to Vitter.

And though Dardenne ran to the political middle, many of the moderate voters he was trying to woo likely broke towards Edwards in the primary, hence Dardenne went from selling himself as the more electable alternative to Edwards to being the more electable alternative to Vitter.

The Republican candidate needs to define Edwards as more than being an Obama minion but what the policy and personnel consequences of a John Bel Edwards governorship would be, peeking behind the curtain of Edwards’s tv commercials.

Vitter also has to effectively deal with Round 3 of the personal attack barrage. Vitter weathered those attacks when he ran for re-election to the US Senate, his first political test since he was rocked by scandal, yet they took a toll in 2015.

Finally, Vitter needs to explain how his election won’t be Jindal’s “third term”, which will be the “cleaner” point of attack by the Democrats.

With a state electoral base that is very Republican (every statewide race that was settled on Saturday was won by a member of the GOP, the attorney general runoff will feature two Republicans and Republican Billy Nungesser is a virtual lock in the lieutenant governor’s race), Edwards is the political interloper in the gubernatorial runoff.

Vitter wasn’t supposed to be beat former Governor Dave Treen for Congress in 1999 but found, or rather, made a way to pull off that upset. His win in the 2004 US Senate primary caught everyone by surprise, especially the Democrats.

With favorable political terrain and a proven record on winning tough races, a battered David Vitter is capable of winning the runoff.

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