I’m perfectly aware that I could easily write a column on the impeachment mess bearing this same headline, and I may do so in the relatively near future. For now, though, we’re discussing a subject with a similar pattern of moral deficiency in politics but with different actors and a different prize to be had.
We’re talking about the Louisiana governor’s race, which is the last political contest on tap before next year’s Democratic presidential primaries begin in Iowa. Democrat John Bel Edwards, the incumbent who has presided over the nation’s worst economy over the past three years (the state’s GDP actually shrunk in 2016 and 2017, the only state economy in America to do so, before growing at an anemic 1.1 percent last year), had hoped to secure reelection with a majority of the votes in the October 12 “jungle primary,” Louisiana’s unusual electoral system, which pits candidates of all parties against each other without regard to parties, because the two main Republican challengers were lesser known and relatively unseasoned.
But Edwards’ plans went down in defeat on the night of October 12, as he was able to pull in only 46.5 percent of the vote while the Republicans, Baton Rouge industrial construction magnate Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, combined with a minor candidate for 52 percent of the vote. Rispone, who has spent some $13 million of his own money so far in the race and has the ability to spend another $13 million if he needs to, edged Abraham for a spot in the runoff.
Ever since that result, Edwards’ campaign has been one display of terror after another, manifested in a series of provable lies designed to frighten his voters to the polls. That’s been somewhat successful, based on the results of early voting that began last Saturday (November 2) and ends tomorrow (November 9). While black voters were 27 percent of the Louisiana electorate in the primary, they’re 29.5 percent so far in early voting, per statistics released yesterday by the Louisiana secretary of state’s office. Democrats altogether are 46 percent of the electorate so far in early voting for the runoff, slightly up from 44.9 percent in the primary.
But Republican votes are up as well. Registered Republicans voting in Louisiana are 39.5 percent of the electorate in early voting so far, up from 37 percent of the primary.
And that’s where Edwards’ camp’s fear comes from. Between independents breaking generally for the challengers and a significant amount of bleed-off from registered Democrats who vote Republican, the GOP punches well above the weight of its party registration in Louisiana, a factor that could be measured at 15 percent of the vote in the primary (37 percent GOP voters plus 15 percent of others equals 52 percent of the vote for GOP primary candidates against Edwards). If Republicans end up at the 39.5 percent share of the electorate they delivered in the primary, Rispone’s share of the vote could, given the math from the primary, go as high as 54.5 percent.
What to do if you’re Edwards? The answer is say anything.
He began the runoff campaign by releasing a poll showing him ahead of Rispone by a 52-36 count in a head-to-head race. That was a survey by the Democrat push-poll operation Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, Edwards’ internal campaign pollster, which was conducted before the October 12 primary. ALG’s polling had shown Edwards consistently above 50 in the primary, one reason Edwards had swaggered about the state in a fashion that confused many observers acquainted with the fundamentals of elections in a red state like Louisiana. But the 52-36 poll result came before Abraham, in his concession speech on primary night, wholeheartedly endorsed Rispone; it was therefore worthless.
And just a few days after Edwards released that poll, independent pollster We Ask America, which has a connection with Rispone’s campaign consultants, put out a different result — the We Ask America poll had the race at 47 apiece. That number was substantially confirmed when JMC Analytics, polling for a group of television stations around the state, had Edwards ahead 48-46.
Incumbents below 50 are rightly terrified, and they often act accordingly. For Edwards, that meant attacking Rispone with a pair of provable lies — first, saying that he had “benefited from” over $500 million in tax breaks that denied state and local governments funding for roads and schools and that Rispone had used “foreign workers” instead of Louisianans on his job sites.
The “foreign workers” claim apparently arises from the fact that Rispone had hired a small handful of engineering graduates from LSU who had come from other countries, and used H-1B visas to make it legal. As to the tax breaks issue, that came from Louisiana’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program (ITEP), in which the state’s economic development arm grants tax exemptions against future property tax assessments for factories and other industrial properties whose value will increase in the event they expand or upgrade. As an example, if ExxonMobil has an oil refinery worth a billion dollars and spends a billion dollars improving it, an ITEP incentive will hold the line on assessing the property at a billion dollars for 10 years.
Rispone never got any of those tax breaks. His company, Industrial Specialty Contractors, performs design and installation work on things like instrumentation and controls at industrial facilities like oil refineries, LNG terminals, power plants, and suchlike, and so he would have “benefited” from tax breaks by bidding a job incentivized through ITEP, doing the work and getting paid with private dollars.
It was a ludicrous attack, but Edwards was just getting started.
Rispone sniped at Edwards in a radio appearance last week, making the point that Edwards’ lack of honesty wasn’t in keeping with the West Point honor code the incumbent has wrapped himself in throughout his political career. (Edwards was a cadet there in the 1980s and served in the Army afterward, leaving after his minimum service period to return to Louisiana, go to law school, and fight in the Great Slip-and-Fall Wars in his home of Tangipahoa Parish). He suggested that perhaps Edwards’ lies might have damaged the military academy’s reputation and that turning out lying trial lawyers wasn’t something West Point would prefer. Edwards responded to that by howling Rispone had attacked his military service and those of the state’s veterans, a ridiculous claim backed by editorials in the Advocate, the state’s clownishly pro-Democrat newspaper.
But when that attempt at ginning up outrage didn’t work, Edwards’ camp lit off another one. A black Democrat organization out of New Orleans called Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD) released a radio spot equating Rispone and President Trump, who has backed him completely (Trump held a rally for Rispone in Monroe on Wednesday and will hold another in Bossier City this coming Thursday), with David Duke. That message also appeared in a door hanger without a paid-for line (in violation of Louisiana campaign law) distributed in black neighborhoods in Shreveport and other locales around the state.
Rispone’s camp went ballistic at that, since he’s the last Republican who could be accused of racism. Rispone has spent millions of dollars pushing school choice in an effort to give poor children, mostly black, in Louisiana an opportunity to escape failing public schools, and his company is well known as a provider of high-paying jobs in the black community above the norm of his industry. The fact that Edwards himself comes from a family of slave traders and segregationists added a little extra flavor to the obnoxious lie.
Edwards initially claimed he had nothing to do with the radio ad and the door hangers, but he offered only a very weak disavowal when he decided the net effect would be positive for him. A couple of days later, when it appeared that was definitely not true, he told the Advocate that he had personally called the head of BOLD, a New Orleans city councilman named Jay Banks, and asked him to take the ad down.
As BOLD is a political action committee engaging in third-party election expenditures, it is a violation of campaign laws for Edwards to have coordinated with them by making direct contact on the subject of what ads they were running. He could, and should, have publicly called for the ads to come down. He didn’t; he did it privately and then bragged about it publicly, and thus broke the law. The obvious question is whether or not he coordinated with BOLD to produce the ad in the first place.
As bad as the David Duke material was, Edwards was hardly finished. Yard signs, door hangers, push cards, and even whisper campaigns all week long have pushed even more desperate accusations. Rispone would end supplemental pay for cops and firemen. Rispone would get rid of Louisiana’s TOPS college scholarship program. Rispone would rob teachers and other state employees of their pensions. Rispone would close colleges. Rispone would end school lunch programs, food stamps, and Medicaid. Yard signs in New Orleans even suggested Rispone would end Medicare in Louisiana. The fearmongering has gotten completely out of control.
This leaves voters in Louisiana a question they’ll have to answer at the ballot: what does it say about the character of a man that he would engage in such a furious campaign not just of lies, but of lies intended to frighten his own supporters into turning out to vote? In Edwards’ case, this is anything but surprising — he’s the same man who made national headlines three years ago threatening to end college football in Louisiana if his $7 billion tax increase package wasn’t passed, and when Republicans in the Legislature attempted to roll back some of it Edwards had the state health department send out eviction letters to seniors in nursing homes as a threat.
The politics of fear isn’t a new thing. But it is an ugly thing, and yet it appears to be the only thing John Bel Edwards has left as he clings desperately to political power.