As we slowly begin passing into election season in Louisiana, there’s no shortage of analysis out there with respect to John Bel Edwards’ re-election prospects vis-a-vis his Republican challengers in the governor’s race Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone. Consider this short item as an offering to the pile.
Disregarding the entry of a number of other candidates, including Gary Landrieu, the cousin of the more famous Mitch and Mary, at this point you essentially have a three-person race – with a Democrat incumbent of questionable popularity but unquestionable financial resources, a Republican congressman seeking to move up into statewide office and an upstart Republican outsider making his first foray into elective politics.
Which is essentially exactly what you had when Mary Landrieu lost re-election in 2014.
According to this line of analysis, John Bel Edwards is Mary Landrieu, Ralph Abraham is Bill Cassidy and Eddie Rispone is Rob Maness.
We will agree that this is an imperfect analogy, for one fundamentally significant reason – Rob Maness never dreamed of having the kind of war chest Eddie Rispone has. So when Rispone goes up on TV, and we’ve heard over and over again once he starts dumping his $10 million onto the airwaves he’s not going to stop, this entire analysis could collapse.
Or perhaps not. We’ve had other big-money self-funders in governor’s races before, only to see failure to launch upon huge campaign spends. Buddy Leach was fantastically unsuccessful in 2003 despite blowing through some $8 million of his own money. Leach finished fourth out of six major candidates in that race, to such an extent that it was suspected among the state’s political insiders that Leach was actually a stalking horse for Kathleen Blanco; his job being, the theory went, to block Richard Ieyoub from making the runoff against Bobby Jindal that year. Leach ended up being the chairman of the Louisiana Democrat Party; it’s fair to say that wasn’t a particular success, either.
And then there was John Georges, who self-funded another sensationally unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2007. The New Orleans businessman loaned his campaign well more than $13 million that year to run as an independent, and it did him virtually no good whatsoever – he came in third out of four major candidates with only 14 percent of the vote. Georges then ran for mayor of New Orleans in 2010, suffering an even more wasteful and ignominious defeat. He’s now the owner of the Advocate and Times-Picayune, using those vehicles to push a political agenda away from elective office.
That’s not to say Rispone is another Buddy Leach or John Georges. He’s cut from significantly different cloth than they are, and it’s fair to say he’s running for significantly different reasons. But it is to say that just because you’ve got a lot of money to spend on running for office in Louisiana it doesn’t necessarily follow that war chest will translate into votes.
Time will tell.
Assuming Rispone’s current position in polling, which is by most of what we’ve seen a little south of 10 percent, should stay where it is or rise only a little, this governor’s race could go very similarly to that 2014 senate race.
If you’ll remember, Mary Landrieu ran into trouble with respect to three significant issues – abortion, Obamacare and race. Landrieu categorized herself as “nuanced” on the abortion issue, but it became a hot-button in the race after the state legislature passed the “admitting privileges bill” which is in the federal court system now and we’ve discussed it here at the site this year. And her deciding vote to pass the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, turned out to be a major negative. Finally, as her fortunes were sagging with the primary near, Landrieu made a major gaffe on race, answering a question about her flagging fortunes by essentially categorizing white Louisiana voters as racists; it wasn’t clear whether that was intended to cast herself as black or exactly how that was relevant to her electoral prospects, but the effect of that statement was to infuriate the voters.
And when Election Day came in 2014, Landrieu barely edged Cassidy by a 42-41 margin, with Maness coming in just under 14 percent. That set up a runoff election between Cassidy and Landrieu, and when Maness agreed to come aboard Cassidy’s ship it became more or less understood that the Democrat incumbent was finished.
Which she was. Cassidy scored an easy 56-44 landslide win, establishing the modern trend that in Louisiana statewide elections, in a head-to-head matchup between a Republican and a Democrat when the differences between the candidates are mostly ideological the voters will choose the Republican by anywhere between 55 and 61 percent. That bore out with John Kennedy’s 61-39 defeat of Foster Campbell in the 2016 Senate race, it bore out in the 2017 Treasurer’s race John Schroder won over Derrick Edwards 56-44 and the 2018 Secretary of State race Kyle Ardoin won over Gwen Collins-Greenup 59-41, and it even bore out in other statewide races in 2015 – for example Bill Nungesser’s 55-45 win over Kip Holden for Lt. Governor, Jeff Landry’s 56-44 win over Buddy Caldwell for Attorney General (Caldwell had switched to “R” a few years earlier but nobody really bought that as authentic) and even in primary races that year. For example, against a field of (mostly) Democrat challengers Jim Donelon pulled in 54 percent of the vote for Insurance Commissioner that year, and Mike Strain managed 58 percent against a similar field in the Agriculture Commissioner’s race.
It’s pretty safe to say that track record is pretty much what you get when it’s a “D” vs. an “R” in Louisiana and the race is about party identification and not federal indictments or hookers or some of the other items unfortunately associated with elective politics in Louisiana.
So, assuming that Rispone’s campaign doesn’t catch fire any more than Maness’ did – which is not an assumption we’re prepared to make for any other reason beyond this analogy – what do we have this year?
Well, we have John Bel Edwards who like Mary Landrieu calls himself a “centrist” or even a “conservative,” despite a record of governance which really doesn’t resemble the sales pitch. We have an incumbent Democrat who cannot reach 50 percent in any polls for re-election regardless of the sample of voters those polls might choose; which is something very similar to polling of the 2014 Senate race. Landrieu never once polled above 50 percent in any primary-race survey prior to the November election that year; her best performance was 48 percent in a Public Policy Polling survey done in November of 2013, and from June of 2014 onward the highest she ever polled was 47 percent.
And we have a John Bel Edwards who, among other things, has vulnerability on the same three issues Landrieu ultimately tripped over.
On abortion, he’s staked out a pro-life position markedly different than Landrieu’s, but that has created other problems for Edwards. Namely, much of his Democrat base is most certainly not pro-life and they’re fairly vocal about that, not to mention their lack of pleasure with his having signed that bill. And with a fractured base there’s a potential fatal flaw in Edwards’ ability to capture a majority of the state’s voters.
Edwards’ Obamacare vulnerability comes in a different form than Landrieu’s, but he’s equally hampered by his governance on the health care issue. While Landrieu was the 60th vote to pass Obamacare, Edwards is the architect of Louisiana’s Obamacare Medicaid expansion – which has caused so many potential political and public-policy time bombs to be planted around him it’s merely only a question of which ones go off and when. We already know Edwards is going to be dogged from here to Election Day over the question of the 40,000 Medicaid expansion signups by people ineligible for the program and the money wasted carrying them on the rolls for the past three years. That will certainly surface in campaign commercials as the air wars begin. But there are other problems coming on the Medicaid front as well.
And then there’s the racial issue, which seems to come up in every election. Edwards is not without problems on that front, something we’ll hold back on for now. But as we discussed yesterday, when Verne Kennedy’s ridiculous poll has to “reallocate” or “normalize” the black vote in Edwards’ favor to such a degree as to move some 12 percent of the total sample in his poll into the incumbent’s column, it’s an indication black voters in Louisiana aren’t sold on him after four years.
We think, based on what we’ve seen, that the 2014 Senate race could be a good template for what this gubernatorial race might look like. Rispone’s potential rise could obviously spoil it to some extent, but two things could be true even then. First, so far Rispone hasn’t attacked Abraham with any regularity or rancor worth mention, which is much different from Maness’ sniping at Cassidy as not being conservative enough, and therefore should Rispone run third it’s probably an easier consolidation of the Republican vote should Abraham be faced with doing so than what Cassidy faced in 2014.
And second, in the event Rispone does skyrocket into a position to make the runoff, the reverse is likely true – Abraham’s camp doesn’t seem likely to go scorched-earth on Rispone the way David Vitter, Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne went at each other in 2015. If Rispone should become the GOP runoff entrant, in any event Edwards still faces a similar problem to Landrieu’s – namely, that ceiling Democrat statewide candidates have.
Both Abraham and Rispone come off in a way similar to Cassidy – conservative enough, professional enough and personally anodyne enough that they can’t really be demonized or attacked as scandalous. That means with either one, Edwards is faced with a classic “D” vs. “R” race in Louisiana.
And we’ve seen enough races to know how that goes around here.