It’s easy to forget that when Sen. David Vitter (R) announced his plans to run for governor in Louisiana, the conventional wisdom was that he was a shoo-in. The Pelican State has become a ruby-red Republican stronghold; and the far-right senator enjoyed the resources, the name-recognition, and the electoral experience he’d need to win.
When Democratic officials reached out to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) about the race, he passed, at least in part because it looked like a year in which a Democrat simply had no chance of success in a state in which Republicans have won every statewide contest for nearly a decade.
And yet, the scandal-plagued Republican got trounced, losing by more than 12 points.
Democrat John Bel Edwards won the runoff election for Louisiana governor Saturday, defeating Republican David Vitter. […]Edwards, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, is the first Democrat to win a statewide race in Louisiana since 2008.
With all precincts reporting, Edwards finished with 56.1% of the statewide vote, while Vitter received 43.9%. It’s the weakest showing for any Louisiana Republican gubernatorial nominee since 1991 – nearly a quarter of a century ago – when the GOP voters nominated a former Ku Klux Klan leader as their candidate.
On a certain level, Vitter’s defeat may not seem like too much of a surprise given that all statewide polling showed him trailing Edwards, but the broader context is nevertheless important: the Times-Picayune described Edwards’ victory as “one of the biggest political upsets in the state’s history” in light of the expectations surrounding the race when it began earlier this year.
With Edwards winning by double-digits, even picking up some endorsements from high-profile Republicans, is it possible Louisiana is becoming a more competitive battleground?
Probably not. In fact, this year’s gubernatorial race in the state seemed largely personal: Louisianans just didn’t like Vitter, his party affiliation notwithstanding. Note, for example, that the same voters who easily elected a Democratic governor on Saturday also easily elected a Republican lieutenant governor and GOP majorities in both chambers of the legislature.
In other words, Vitter, burdened by his background of hiring prostitutes while running as a family-values conservative, should very likely see the results as a personal repudiation.
This is obviously going to have a fairly dramatic impact on Louisiana politics – Edwards will likely govern from the center, which will represent governance far more progressive than what Louisianans saw from outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) – but the national implications shouldn’t be overlooked.
* Vitter’s future: The Republican senator will return to the Senate to serve the remainder of his term, but he announced over the weekend that he will not seek re-election next year. Roundly rejected by his constituents, Vitter, who expected to be governor, will instead have no office whatsoever in January 2017.
* A failed, divisive strategy: Down in the polls, Vitter completely overhauled his campaign message the week before Election Day, seizing on anti-refugee animus in the hopes of salvaging his career. It created a test that both parties watched closely: in the wake of the recent Paris attack, could Republicans exploit fear and bigotry to win tough races through racially charged appeals? At least in this case, the answer appears to be no.
* Health care: Edwards is well to the right of the Democratic mainstream on some key issues, including reproductive rights, but the governor-elect also ran on a platform of embracing Medicaid expansion through the Affordable Care Act. His victory will very likely bring health security to nearly 200,000 low-income Louisianans.
* A break in the “Solid South”: In the Obama era, how many non-incumbent Democratic gubernatorial candidates have won in the South? Before Saturday, the answer was zero. Now, it’s one.