This will in all likelihood be the first time you’ve even seen the possibility mentioned that Edwards, the Democrat incumbent Louisiana governor up for re-election in October, might not end up in the final pairing when the all-but-inevitable November runoff takes place. Most observers, including our own Joe Cunningham earlier this week, have taken it for granted Edwards will be in the final two – and that beating him is a formidable challenge.
Cunningham isn’t wrong based on the current field, though it’s far, far too early to make any judgements about the election. Edwards has something of an advantage over Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone, the two announced Republican candidates who as yet aren’t universally known among Louisiana voters, although that advantage rests on an exceedingly shaky foundation. Polling indicates that while his approval rating remains higher than one might expect of a Democrat governor in a predominantly Republican-voting state, his support is a mile wide and an inch deep – as his re-elect numbers, which sit in the low 40’s, indicate.
Edwards is beatable. But it’s going to take a legitimately good campaign, as opposed to the unmitigated fiasco of the 2015 race which put him in office, wherein three Republican candidates beat each other bloody and opened the door for Edwards to run almost completely unscathed into the governor’s mansion.
Moreover, history indicates that Democrat governors have a heck of a bad time getting re-elected in Louisiana. The last time a Democrat could win re-election in this state was 1975, when Edwin Edwards rode a red-hot state economy thanks to skyrocketing oil prices and the offshore drilling boom at the time to a 62 percent showing over fellow Dems Bob Jones and Wade Martin in a race where Republicans didn’t even bother to field a candidate.
Since then, it’s been an awfully bleak picture. Edwards – Edwin, we’re talking about here – was elected twice more after having to sit out the 1979 election thanks to term limits, and he couldn’t get re-elected either time. He ran for re-election in 1987 and barely edged Bob Livingston for second place, opting to concede to Buddy Roemer rather than take a sure clobbering in a runoff. And after Roemer failed to make the runoff while running for re-election in 1991, which gave the state its infamous pairing of Edwin Edwards and David Duke in the worst gubernatorial election in Louisiana (maybe American?) history, Edwards begged off running for re-election in 1995 knowing he had zero chance to win.
And the next time there was a Democrat governor in Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco oversaw a calamitous state response to Hurricane Katrina which submerged her political career in the floodwaters. Blanco, like Edwin Edwards before her, didn’t even bother to run for re-election.
John Bel Edwards has managed to survive for three years as governor without a hurricane destroying New Orleans, though with 55,000 more people leaving Louisiana than moving in over the past two years, the state’s unemployment rate ranking as one of the nation’s highest and Louisiana’s economy actually shrinking for two of the three years he’s been in office you could make a good argument his tenure on the Fourth Floor has been every bit the failure Edwin Edwards’ and Buddy Roemer’s administrations were. It’s just that Edwards has so far avoided a lot of public rebuke, largely thanks to a partisan and supportive state media.
But there’s a lot going on under the surface here which hasn’t been reported, and one foreseeable alteration to the gubernatorial field could make Edwards’ hopes for re-election untenable.
Remember the poll Remington Research put out on Abraham’s behalf last month? That poll indicated John Bel Edwards only has 53 percent support among Democrat voters for re-election at present, with 25 percent wanting to vote for somebody else, 15 percent saying they won’t vote for a Democrat and seven percent saying they’re not sure. Who are those 25 percent looking for another Democrat to get into the race? Almost assuredly the vast majority of them are black voters.
What the mainstream media in this state refuses to report, though virtually every insider at the Capitol who isn’t in the tank for John Bel Edwards knows is true, is that the black community doesn’t have a lot of use for John Bel Edwards. He’s spent so much time trying to perpetuate this image of himself as a centrist, Trump-friendly Southern Democrat who moderate Republican voters can get behind that very few items on the list of priorities within the Legislative Black Caucus, let’s say, have been addressed.
Sure, Edwards has raised $7 billion in taxes and used the proceeds to grow government. But the taxes that were raised were almost completely via sales tax increases, such that Louisiana has the highest sales tax rate in America. And the LBC believes – falsely, but it’s what they believe – that sales taxes are “regressive” and disproportionately affect poor people, so it’s mostly their constituents who are paying the bulk of the tax hikes. That isn’t true, but what they wanted was a big income tax hike or a full-on assault on business.
Which leads us to the ITEP fiasco. The far left in Louisiana, of which the black political class makes up a sizable chunk, wants to eliminate corporate tax breaks everywhere they can, and prevailed on Edwards to do that dirty work for them. Instead, essentially what Edwards did was to pull governance of the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, which constitutes a major share of Louisiana’s corporate tax breaks, away from Louisiana Economic Development (ITEP used to be run solely at the state level) and gave a big chunk of that governance to local parish councils and school boards. Business and industry have been apoplectic about the effect of that decision ever since, but they aren’t alone – the local pols, many of whom are black, and particularly so in Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans where the ensuing fights have become hottest, are being whipsawed between the Together Louisiana crowd, who are in an all-out jihad to drive every industrial concern who might attempt to access ITEP right out of the state, and their own political interests. If you’re a politician in North Baton Rouge, for example, you want to have at least a civil relationship with ExxonMobil, who likely employs more of your constituents than any other private employer. That gets harder and harder when you’re caught between ExxonMobil and the teacher’s unions thanks to an ITEP fight.
In other words, Edwards hasn’t exactly made friends by punting ITEP to the locals.
Nor has he made the Black Caucus happy by cutting them out of the budget negotiations over the last couple of years. That’s been a real problem for him.
What does that lead to? Well, here it is an election year, and we’ve got a legislative session coming up this spring. Edwards is going to try to get a teacher pay raise and a minimum wage increase out of that session, and to get that teacher pay raise he’s likely going to have to offer something up to the Republicans who make up a majority in the House – otherwise they’re either going to kill that pay raise in committee or they’ll mark up the bill such that it’s something Edwards won’t be able to sign. For example, lots of House Republicans aren’t interested in some across-the-board pay raise; they’d rather vote for merit increases based on performance metrics. That would mean the worst-performing school districts, most of which are populated by and run by members of the black community, wouldn’t get much of anything out of Edwards’ teacher pay raise.
And the minimum wage increase isn’t going anywhere. Republicans aren’t going to vote for that this year when they’ve killed it every year it’s come up. Edwards meanwhile will wear out his appeal to the moderate voters looking like Bill DeBlasio or Bernie Sanders if he rails against Republicans who oppose his minimum wage bills – especially when Louisiana has one of the highest unemployement rates in the country. It’s a loser. But if he doesn’t make that effort it’s going to rub the black community the wrong way.
As an aside, we hope our readers don’t get the impression we just assume all the black people in Louisiana are dirt-poor and can’t hold down living-wage jobs. We don’t make that assumption and we agree that to do so is a thorough insult to the majority of black Louisianans. But it just so happens that virtually every black politician in the state does make that assumption, and furthermore continuously acts on it in practically every political context. That’s what colors our analysis here.
All of which is to explain that John Bel Edwards is just one change in circumstances away from having to choose between the 15 percent of Louisiana’s electorate who usually vote Republican but that he was able to steal away from David Vitter, and the 30 percent of the electorate who currently represent his voting base but who aren’t all that enamored of him. About half that 30 percent are already telling pollsters they want somebody else to vote for.
And that brings us to the final factor nobody else seems to be considering.
The conventional wisdom in Louisiana last year was that Renee Fontenot Free was the Democrats’ candidate for Secretary of State and that she was formidable. Free was well-qualified, having had a high position in the Secretary of State’s office, she had admirers in both parties, she’s smart and well-spoken and she was well-connected. Free didn’t raise a whole lot of money, but most people didn’t think that was a particular problem for her in the primary. And while the field was full of Republicans chewing each other up, Free only had one Democrat opponent – Gwen Collins-Greenup, a political nobody from nowhere in East Feliciana Parish who’d run unsuccessfully for Clerk of Court there and whose chief professional accomplishment had been a recent graduation from Southern Law School.
The idea that Collins-Greenup would be much of an obstacle for Free to make the runoff against what would probably be a bruised and battered Republican – which turned out to be Kyle Ardoin – didn’t get a whole lot of currency among the smart set. And early polls of the race had Free in a comfortable position atop the field.
But when the electorate started to realize that Collins-Greenup was the black Democrat in the race, up she shot in the polls. And when the primary numbers came in on Election Night it was Collins-Greenup sitting on 289,000 votes (20 percent) and landing in the runoff, and Free sitting on 239,000 votes (16 percent) and landing in third place.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. Collins-Greenup had no political following, no resume for the job, no campaign and barely raised and spent $20,000 in the primary of a statewide race, and yet she made the runoff based solely on identity politics.
It was something of a reprise of the 2017 special election in the Treasurer’s race, when Derrick Edwards rode a similar set of circumstances into the runoff. But this was an even starker case, because in Derrick Edwards’ race he was the only Democrat running. Collins-Greenup was up against Free and still made the runoff.
If you take from this the lesson that a black Democrat is going to get black votes that a white Democrat thinks he or she has in the bag, you can see how John Bel Edwards might well be the Titanic heading for the iceberg without even realizing it.
You probably wouldn’t sink JBE with a Derrick Edwards or Gwen Collins-Greenup, though both of them now have some degree of statewide name recognition from having made those runoffs. And it’s entirely likely Edwards and Collins-Greenup will run for the jobs they finished second for anyway.
But if some termed-out black state legislator, or current or former mayor of one of Louisiana’s larger cities, or even some non-governmental figure with a political pedigree as an activist, were to jump into the race and begin castigating John Bel Edwards as selling out the black community, the governor then has a serious problem on his hands.
And don’t think for one second there aren’t people in the business community in this state more than willing to fund such a campaign. You find somebody disgruntled enough over Edwards’ various slights to the Black Caucus and others that they’d agree to do to him what Jay Dardenne did to David Vitter four years ago, and there will be at least a couple hundred thousand dollars in campaign money available to them.
Which we know from the experience of Collins-Greenup and Derrick Edwards is more than enough to ramp up black support for a black candidate.
And if said black candidate were to capture the share of the vote Collins-Greenup did in last year’s Secretary of State race, Edwards might well be in a major fight just to make the runoff. He’d certainly find himself struggling to position himself for victory in a runoff – shift to the left and he loses those swing voters he took from Vitter, which puts him on the wrong side of a 60-40 rout at the hands of either Abraham or Rispone in November, or continue playing the centrist and he can kiss off the black voters who have another option.
Everybody just assumes this isn’t a problem for Edwards. They really shouldn’t. It is the iceberg directly in his path, and if he isn’t careful he’ll steer directly into it and sink his re-election bid – either in the November runoff, or maybe even in the October primary.