The Trumping of John Bel Edwards
Scott McKay
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What’s the old saying? Three weeks is an eternity in politics?

In Louisiana, it’s more like three days.

Just ask John Bel Edwards. The Democrat governor of Louisiana has, by all indications, defied political gravity as a blue politician in a red state, largely escaping public outrage for, objectively, the worst economic performance in America over his three-plus years in office while overseeing massive tax increases and ugly net outmigration numbers, not to mention a few bureaucratic scandals that would have likely sunk a Republican in similar circumstances.

Why that’s been true is suitable fodder for a column in itself, but Edwards has mostly profited by the total collapse of Louisiana’s legacy media. The state’s two main newspapers, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Baton Rouge Advocate, have merged under the ownership of a former Democrat candidate for mayor of New Orleans, John Georges, and what formerly was a pair of left-wing newsrooms at least competing to appear objective is now one newsroom pumping out Edwards-friendly propaganda on a virtual nonstop basis to a declining audience. Louisiana’s local TV stations don’t really cover state politics, and its other newspapers are either USA Today farm team outfits with virtually no coverage of the statehouse or too small to have much of a footprint. So the public is largely unconcerned with things that happen at the state capitol; if it doesn’t happen on Fox News or the sports page, it generally doesn’t generate much of a reaction.

And with a pair of competent-but-lackluster Republican candidates running against him in U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, Edwards has mostly skated in the race to date. Particularly when Rispone, who at the time was trailing Abraham and Edwards in the polls, unleashed a brutal and largely mendacious attack ad against Abraham, claiming he’d voted with Nancy Pelosi over 300 times in the current Congress (virtually all of the instances in question being procedural or otherwise insubstantial votes not involving matters of policy) and attacking him for donating his first-term congressional salary to charity as he’d promised but not his salary for the following terms.

The effect of that ad was to drain Abraham of support, but Rispone didn’t pick up all the loose votes. Polling indicated many of them ended up with Edwards, who began showing numbers dangerously close to 50 percent in surveys of the race.

This matters, because Louisiana operates in a “jungle primary” format for state, local, and federal elections, meaning candidates aren’t segregated by party. Two Republicans bashing each other in the presence of a Democrat who is also on the same ballot is generally regarded as playing with fire, particularly given it was precisely such a scenario in the 2015 Louisiana governor’s race, which led to Edwards’ unlikely ascension to the governor’s mansion. No one thought a conservative state like the Sportsman’s Paradise could elect a Democrat, but David Vitter was so bloodied by the primary fight against fellow Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne that the supporters of the latter two wouldn’t turn out for him in the runoff. It didn’t help that Angelle refused to endorse Vitter and Dardenne actually endorsed Edwards, who rewarded Dardenne by making him his Commissioner of Administration.

So as of a week ago, all the talk about the race was that Edwards was on his way to perhaps catching a majority in the October 12 primary while Abraham and Rispone squabbled for what could well turn out to be a participation trophy as the second-place loser.

And then, on Saturday, early voting began in Louisiana, and all of a sudden John Bel Edwards’ stock began sinking like the Titanic.

It began with a flurry of tweets from the Trump family. Eric, Donald Junior, Lara, and campaign manager Brad Parscale all put out statements on Twitter exhorting Louisiana Republicans to get out and vote for either Abraham or Rispone, because Edwards’ record is unforgivable and Louisiana’s economy lags behind that of the country. The president echoed and amplified those statements in a pair of tweets Tuesday:

“REPUBLICANS of Louisiana, it is really important for you to go out and vote on October 12th for either Eddie Rispone or Ralph Abraham (both Great), which will lead to a runoff against a Nancy Pelosi/Chuck Schumer Democrat (John Bel Edwards), who does nothing but stymie all of the things we are doing to Make America Great Again,” he tweeted. “Don’t be fooled, John Bel Edwards will NEVER be for us. Early voting has already started!”

The Trump Twitter offensive wasn’t the only change in the race. Last Thursday the Washington Times’ James Varney dropped a bombshell story about Edwards’ family background, as his ancestors were some of the largest slaveholders in all of Louisiana and had in fact traded slaves and run the local fugitive slave patrols prior to the Civil War. Following the war the Edwardses became local politicians, turning Tangipahoa Parish, east of Baton Rouge, into a little fiefdom from which four generations of them served as sheriff (including the governor’s brother Daniel, who had his laptop computer taken away in an evidence bag during a December 2016 FBI raid amid an investigation of a steal-and-deal drug scam involving the sheriff’s department evidence locker). Edwards’ grandfather Frank Millard Edwards, who served as Tangipahoa Parish sheriff from 1928–48 and later, in the late 1950s, was a state senator, was a prominent segregationist who helped pass bills attempting to nullify the famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case and segregating the blood supply, so as to prevent the chance of white people being “miscegenated” by blood transfusions.

Breitbart News followed with their own story early this week with even more details of the Edwards family’s background in slavery and noting that an answer Edwards gave to a question about reparations was perhaps tainted by that background — raising the question, perhaps, whether the Democrats can both pander to black voters and the Hard Left by offering reparations while at the same time supporting a governor of theirs who would clearly be among the first in line to have to pay. Both articles saw wide circulation on social media, though the local legacy media suspiciously ignored them.

Perhaps most importantly, Edwards also got caught up in the Democrat Party’s infamous misstep of opening an impeachment investigation, which has set Republican voters ablaze with anger across the country. Though the governor has done his best not to answer questions about where he stands on the subject, he’s left, perhaps unwittingly, a trail of breadcrumbs indicating an orientation closer to Nancy Pelosi than the Donald. Edwards, back in June, had told a crowd at a black church in New Orleans that to make America great again Americans had to be good, a fairly clear inference that Trump voters were not. And in July, when asked about Trump’s statements castigating the anti-American and likely criminal Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Edwards likened the president to a lunch-counter segregationist (something Frank Millard Edwards’ grandson ought to know plenty about).

Then this week Edwards was caught on camera laughing off Trump’s electioneering tweets, while then firing off fundraising emails to Democrat donors screaming about Trump’s attacks.

Since Saturday, the daily early voting totals have told a tale of woe for the incumbent. Republican turnout has skyrocketed to levels never before seen in Louisiana, so much so that the R’s (42.5) are within a percentage point of the D’s (43.2) as a share of the state’s electorate as of close of business Thursday (by registration, Democrats are 42.4 percent of the electorate, and Republicans 31.0 percent). In a state in which a large number of Democrats function as Republican voters — they probably would have switched parties long ago if party primaries had been in force — this kind of parity is unheard of and certainly not hospitable to Edwards gaining a majority in the October 12 primary.

Worse, black voter turnout has been cataclysmic so far for Edwards and the Democrats. The black share of the early-voting electorate, as of close of business Thursday, is just 23.8 percent (blacks are 31.3 percent of Louisiana’s registered voters). Edwards needs it to be nearer to 30 percent in order to win. One wonders if the Washington Times and Breitbart exposés didn’t circulate underground a lot more than Edwards and the local media wanted or expected; it would be no real shock if they had.

Louisiana’s pollsters, who consistently informed the public over the last three months that (1) Edwards is a reasonably popular governor who (2) has above-average Republican support by a (3) less-engaged-than-usual public, seem befuddled by the early voting numbers. Some have shrugged it off as a behavioral shift — the convenience of early voting seems to have caught on with busy Republican voters more so than less-busy Democrats, perhaps. They’d be expected to say something of the sort, because who would want to admit, until it’s absolutely necessary, that they’ve completely missed a potential groundswell in a wave election?

Perhaps the pollsters’ theories are correct. But there is another theory out there that might be gaining purchase and could inform future elections — and specifically the quality of polling data preceding them. This being a variant of the “shy Republican” theory, which surfaced during Trump’s presidential election. Then, it was voters refusing to tell pollsters they were actually for Trump since to do so was “socially unacceptable.” Now, it may be that conservative voters simply refuse to answer the phone to take part in polling at all. The effect of that phenomenon is that the pollsters will keep calling Republicans from their source file until they can find enough to satisfy their sample, but the Republicans they end up with responses from are the softer, less engaged types. They’ll probably vote, but they don’t really represent the majority of the “Rs” who show up at the precinct.

In Louisiana, that has played out as an abnormally high number of Republican voters telling pollsters they would vote for Edwards — as high as 25 percent in some polls. But these Republicans flocking to the voting machines this week are not coming out of the woodwork to elect a Democrat. Far from it. By every indication to date they’ve heard and seen all they can stand about the impeachment debacle, and the most visible response available to them is to head to the voting booth to punish every Democrat they can.

And they’re starting with John Bel Edwards, who’s now in Trump’s crosshairs anyway.

Perhaps Edwards’ camp can rebound from a disastrous first four days of early voting. But on Saturday, Vice President Mike Pence arrives in the New Orleans area to rally the troops for the final day of early voting, and Election Week starts next week with Donald Junior arriving in the state to keep up the momentum. The president himself is on the way later, though probably not until the runoff election begins.

And there will almost surely be a runoff now. No one really knows whether it will be Abraham or Rispone who gets to carry the GOP standard into that round, and it might be that it doesn’t quite matter. Either will have Trump’s full support — and almost assuredly that of an energized and very pissed-off mass of Louisiana Republican voters.

Scott McKay
Scott McKay
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Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics. He’s also a novelist — check out his first book “Animus: A Tale of Ardenia,” available in Kindle and paperback.
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