On November 21, the voters in Louisiana spoke loudly in their preference not to have David Vitter as their governor. This was both understandable, as Vitter’s past history of dalliances with ladies of the evening — even though not repeated since it ended some 14 years ago — had been a constant source of embarrassment, and puzzling, since Vitter’s runoff opponent, Democrat John Bel Edwards, offers virtually nothing that Louisianans have been asking for in recent years.
The Vitter-Edwards runoff ended in a stunning 56-44 landslide in favor of the Democrat in a deep-red state, and interestingly enough conservative Republicans won runoffs by nearly identical margins in two other statewide races. Billy Nungesser, formerly the president of Plaquemines Parish southeast of New Orleans, defeated Democrat Baton Rouge mayor Kip Holden to become Louisiana’s new Lt. Governor, and former congressman Jeff Landry unseated sitting Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, who was originally elected to that position as a Democrat and switched parties in 2011 to foreclose a challenge from the Right four years ago. In those races the voters confirmed they’ve not changed their preference for conservative solutions and candidates.
But Vitter, the most demonstrably accomplished conservative candidate in all of the statewide Louisiana races, couldn’t join them. He lost by 12 points to not only the most demonstrably left-wing candidate running for governor but also the least qualified. The other two major candidates in the gubernatorial race, Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, who had also been a state senator and Secretary of State, and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, who had been the Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and an appointed interim Lt. Governor, had far more extensive resumes than Edwards, a lowly two-term state representative from the tiny (4,000) town of Amite who had no legislative accomplishments to speak of. Edwards’ record was so devoid of achievement that his signature accomplishment in the 2015 legislative session was the passage of a resolution he offered making May 4-8 “Teacher Appreciation Week” at the state capitol.
Not to mention that when it came time to vote on more substantive fare, Edwards demonstrated himself to be wholly opposed to the state’s conservative majority. On economic issues, he earned a lifetime score of only 29 percent according to the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and on social issues he was no better, earning an “F” score from the Louisiana Family Forum.
But Edwards, who attended West Point and spent eight years in the U.S. Army, called himself a “conservative” Democrat (among the few positions he took on the Right were in favor of gun rights and, to some extent, opposing abortion) and ran an issue-free campaign essentially dependent on character assassination of a U.S. Senator who had been re-elected with 57 percent of the vote in 2010.
And it worked. Edwards found out that as a congressman in 2001, Vitter missed a vote on a House resolution honoring servicemen killed in the first Gulf War on the same day phone records indicated he took a call from Deborah Jane Palfrey, the D.C. madam, and ran an ad accusing Vitter of “answering a prostitute’s call” while touting himself as answering the nation’s call by serving in the military. The ad, called one of the most brutal anyone’s ever seen by several pundits, met a mixed reaction — but Vitter had nothing to match it. Instead, he countered with an apology for his mistakes of 15 years ago that didn’t resonate.
Vitter’s own attacks on Edwards went largely unmarked by the voters. He found video of the Democrat pandering to black voters at Southern University and promising to reduce the state’s prison population by 5,500 by the end of his first term should he be elected, and turned that into a TV spot, but was savaged by the state’s stubbornly left-wing media for a “racist” message. At the last debate with Edwards, which Vitter decisively won, he hammered the Democrat for his terrible economic voting record and earned Edwards’ retort that “I give 100 percent to my wife.” Polls before the election showed that Vitter was closing the gap on the Democrat, but he was beaten as badly as 60-40 in early voting, which was some 20-25 percent of the total vote.
The result being that Edwards, who in the wake of the election is busily twisting arms of his Republican former colleagues (who are now up to 61 of the 105 members of the House of Representatives) in order to find nine of them willing to support a Democrat, Walt Leger, for Speaker of a Republican House, believes he has a mandate for liberal governance of a conservative state. He talks out of both sides of his mouth about what damage he’ll do to the state’s educational reform program passed in 2012, with charter schools and the state’s voucher program likely to suffer in significant fashion, and his rhetoric on how to solve a billion-dollar structural budget deficit is paper-thin; it’s obvious Edwards will be pushing tax increases, but he’ll do so with great resistance and he’ll likely see his approval ratings crash out of his current honeymoon period with great speed when he unveils those plans.
As for Vitter, he’ll finish the final year of his Senate term and return to private life late next year. The Louisiana Republican Party will spend the next four years attempting to stitch itself back together after being torn apart by the acrimonious primary race between Vitter, Angelle (who represented the intensely anti-Vitter Bobby Jindal faction), and Dardenne, who is expected to take a job as Edwards’ Commissioner of Administration; its chief asset is the outrage and buyer’s remorse most of the electorate is likely to feel when it realizes the Democrat it installed in the governor’s mansion is no conservative.
But in four years, Louisiana will find itself deeply uncompetitive with its pro-growth, low-tax neighbors in Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, and elsewhere, and a long pattern of outmigration to those states, which largely ended during Jindal’s eight years as governor, will inevitably recommence.
Charles Krauthammer famously said “Decline is a choice.” Louisiana has made a choice, and it wasn’t a good one. For the sake of a 15-year old scandal already litigated by the public in a 2010 Senate election it installed an unaccomplished left-wing state legislator in a position to stonewall a needed reform agenda.
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