There are no Democrat statewide elected officials in Louisiana.
The last one, Mary Landrieu, was turned out of her Senate seat in a landslide election last year. Landrieu had been the only Democrat among the statewide officeholders since 2011, when Attorney General Buddy Caldwell switched from “D” to “R” in an effort to hold off a challenge from the right in that year’s elections.
And yet there are several current polls which have a Democrat, state representative John Bel Edwards of tiny Amite in the southeastern part of the state east of Baton Rouge, leading the other three major candidates in advance of Saturday’s primary. Those polls also generally say that Edwards would open the runoff election with a lead of as much as 14 points against Sen. David Vitter, the likely Republican runoff participant.
No serious observer of state politics believes that Edwards can actually withstand the runoff election against Vitter, mind you. The last campaign finance disclosures show Vitter with some $3 million left in his war chest (campaign funds and Super PAC combined) in advance of the runoff, while Edwards’ camp has about half that much. And it’s largely recognized that Vitter will reload and bury Edwards with ads tying him to Barack Obama and Democrat failure of governance in Louisiana.
This is expected to pay off for Vitter because Edwards, as the sole Democrat in the race, hasn’t been touched by attacks to date. The three Republicans running — Vitter, public service commissioner and former Lt. Governor Scott Angelle, and current Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne — have focused on each other. Or more to the point, Dardenne and Angelle have been attacking Vitter, while Vitter has been attacking them in relatively equal measure. Edwards has largely been ignored, and has thus cast himself as Republican Lite (Pro-God! Pro-Life! Pro-Guns!) while making it very clear to the voters how much he hates outgoing incumbent governor Bobby Jindal.
Louisiana has what’s known as a “jungle primary” system, in which all candidates regardless of party are tossed into the same primary pot. If your state is flirting with the idea of copying Louisiana, do what you can to fight it. Jungle primaries make for uncommonly stupid campaigns with truly idiotic results, as Louisiana proved in 1991 when centrist Republican governor Buddy Roemer finished third behind legendary Democrat kleptocrat Edwin Edwards and former Klan leader David Duke, who was seen as a protest vote until he squeaked past the incumbent into the runoff.
The result this time won’t be much different than a party primary would produce. Vitter and Edwards will make for a “D” vs. “R” runoff. But everything about the race has been ridiculous, and voter apathy is leaving the state’s chattering classes with perplexed looks and worried muttering. The silver lining, of course, is that Louisiana’s electorate this year is likely to be rock-solid conservative in ways it hasn’t even been over the last several Republican-dominated election cycles.
For example, there are lots of meaty issues to be discussed in the race — the state’s billion-dollar structural budget deficit, caused by a combination of an inefficient tax code, skyrocketing pension costs, an overabundance of dedicated funds for things which shouldn’t be top priorities, and a lack of fiscal conservative will to shrink the size and scope of state government, is one. The ongoing, multibillion-dollar effort to save the state’s coastline from eroding, thanks to the decision long ago to levee the Mississippi River all the way to its mouth, is another. The negative effect not just of world oil prices but Louisiana’s terrible legal climate on the state’s energy-industry-led economy, is a third.
Instead, the topic of conversation even among the Republicans — and incessantly among the media — has been hookers, and the allegations, substantially admitted to by Vitter, that some 15 years ago he may have had dalliances with ladies of the evening. Dardenne’s mantra is that he’s “never had a hint of scandal,” while Angelle, who switched to Republican from Democrat in 2010 amid the disastrous Obama administration offshore oil drilling moratorium following the BP oil spill, has become increasingly vociferous in denouncing Vitter’s low character.
In return, Vitter has run ads calling both tax-raisers, tying Angelle to Obama and blaming him for his role as a regulator (he was the head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources at the time) in a 2012 industrial accident which led to the formation of a large sinkhole in Assumption Parish, and beating Dardenne up over a trip to Europe he took around his 60th birthday with a sizable entourage. Vitter calls it a $34,000 taxpayer-subsidized extravagance, while Dardenne says the trip was part of his role as Lt. Governor promoting the state’s culture and tourism industry and that it secured oodles of Belgian and French tourists for the state. Angelle is now calling Vitter “Senator Pinocchio,” while Vitter has responded with “Sinkhole Scott.” Dardenne says Vitter can’t be allowed to make the runoff, though every poll but one (Pensacola, Florida-based pollster Verne Kennedy is the outlier of those surveying the race) shows that’s precisely what will happen. And both have howled about the debates Vitter has skipped, though he’s a United States Senator who would doubtless be attacked for skipping votes like the one Tuesday on his own legislation de-funding “sanctuary cities” if he attended gubernatorial debates to be attacked over 15-year-old scandals.
All along, though, it has been obvious to anyone paying attention that to make the runoff either Angelle or Dardenne needed to get the other out of the race somehow, consolidate the anti-Vitter-but-not-Democrat vote, which might be as much as a third of the electorate, and then clobber both Vitter and Edwards in an effort to climb over one of them — and then, in the runoff, either run just to the left of Vitter or just to the right of Edwards, depending on the opponent.
Neither candidate apparently recognized the obvious. For the most part neither has raised a glove to the other. And in two polls last week neither was even in double digits. And so the likely Republican, who in 2010 beat Charlie Melancon by a 57-38 margin to earn re-election even with all the revelations about his marital infidelities fresh in voters’ minds, will enter the runoff battered, bruised, and largely unpopular. Vitter is, as said above, still likely to win. But to do so he’s going to drag Edwards through a gauntlet of negative messaging and attacks like never before seen in recent American politics, and drive away all but the most committed voters.
To some of us, who rather enjoy seeing Democrats put on the rack, it will be glorious. But Louisiana’s next governor is likely going to take office amid a hail of bitching from the media, politicians, and Joe Six-Pack alike. Vitter will get a lot of practice in punishing his enemies if he wins; they won’t be hard to spot.
Full disclosure: This writer endorsed Vitter on Monday.
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