Louisiana held its runoff elections on Saturday, and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards won re-election by defeating wealthy Republican Eddie Rispone 51-49. Pelican State Democrats also got some more good news when they prevented the GOP from taking the two-thirds supermajority in the state House that Team Red needed to override Edwards’ vetoes.
Edwards is the first Democratic chief executive to claim a second consecutive term in the state since Edwin Edwards in 1975, as well as the first incumbent Louisiana governor to ever compete in, much less win, a runoff. With his victory, Democrats also will maintain control of the one statewide office they still hold in the entire Deep South besides Doug Jones’ Alabama U.S. Senate seat.
Edwards won his first term in this very red state in 2015 by defeating scandal-tarred Republican Sen. David Vitter by a wide 56-44 margin in an extraordinary campaign. Edwards was generally popular during his tenure, but he always faced a difficult task winning re-election this year in a state that backed Donald Trump 58-38, one in which no other Democrats have won statewide in over a decade. Both parties poured millions into ads, and Trump campaigned in the state just before the Oct. 12 all-party primary and twice during the runoff.
While Edwards hoped he could avoid a runoff by winning a majority of the vote in the all-party primary, he fell a bit short. Edwards took 47% of the vote, while Rispone edged GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham 27-24 for the second runoff spot. Altogether Rispone, Abraham, and Some Dude Republican Patrick "Live Wire" Landry racked up a combined 52% of the vote, while Edwards and underfunded Democrat Omar Dantzler took 47%. (The balance went to independent Gary Landrieu.) Edwards was still very much in the fight following the first round of voting, but he looked like at least the slight underdog going into the five-week runoff campaign.
Edwards spent the next month connecting Rispone to former GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal, who left office with horrific approval ratings at the start of 2016, and arguing that the challenger would undo the Medicaid expansion that Edwards had secured for hundreds of thousands of people. Rispone, meanwhile, tried to link himself to Trump as closely as possible, and Trump was only too happy to return the favor.
Trump held his final rally for Rispone on Thursday and, just as he had for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin earlier this month, he sought to make the election all about himself. Trump noted Bevin’s defeat, saying, “So, Trump took a loss,” and he implored his Louisiana audience, “So you got to give me a big win, please. OK? OK.”
However, voters did not give Trump or Rispone a big win. Instead, Edwards got to proclaim during his victory speech, “And as for the president: God bless his heart.” ("Bless your heart" is a seemingly sweet-sounding Southernism that actually means, "Oh, you poor benighted bastard.")
There are a few important reasons that Edwards won his majority on Saturday after falling a few points short last month. While Ralph Abraham endorsed Rispone immediately after losing their nasty contest, Democrats hoped that lingering bad feelings would convince some of Abraham’s supporters to cross party lines for Edwards or at least stay home for round two. Edwards worked to fan the flames of intraparty animosity by running a commercial in Abraham’s 5th Congressional District, which is located in northeast Louisiana, that reminded viewers about the attacks Rispone leveled at their congressman.
Republicans seemed quite aware that unhappy Abraham constituents could hamper Rispone, and one of Trump’s two runoff rallies took place in Monroe in the heart of the 5th District. However, it was Edwards’ strategy that paid off on Saturday. According to the University of Virginia’s J. Miles Coleman, the Republican gubernatorial candidates outpaced the Democrats 60-40 in the 5th District last month, but Rispone only beat Edwards 55-45 there in the runoff. While Edwards made gains in the state’s other five congressional seats, no other district shifted toward him this much compared to one month ago.
Turnout also spiked in the big blue parishes that are home to large black communities and in which Democrats need to run up the score to win statewide. According to Bloomberg’s Greg Giroux, while statewide turnout was up 12% from last month’s all-party primary, it increased by 15% in East Baton Rouge (the state’s largest parish), by 25% in Caddo Parish, and by 29% in Orleans Parish.
Edwards also made gains over the last month in Jefferson Parish, which is the second largest in the state. The Democratic candidates outpaced the Republicans 54-46 in this suburban New Orleans community on Oct. 12, and the governor almost doubled his margin of victory there on Saturday by taking it 57-43.
Edwards’ big win in Jefferson Parish also seems to have been due in part to a GOP collapse in the well-educated suburbs that has hurt Team Red across the nation during the Trump era. The Economist’s G. Elliott Morris writes that, in the parishes “where a higher share of the population has a bachelor's degree or higher,” Edwards actually did better on Saturday than he did during his decisive 2015 statewide win. By contrast, Rispone improved on Vitter’s poor performance four years ago almost everywhere in the state, especially in the rural southwest corner of Louisiana (roughly the area that makes up the 3rd Congressional District).
Jefferson Parish very much reflects this suburban swing to the left. Back in 2015, Edwards outpaced Vitter, who got his start in parish politics, by a narrow 51-49 margin, which is considerably smaller than the double-digit win the governor racked up there on Saturday. While Jefferson Parish was an early source of GOP strength back when Democrats still dominated the state, any Democrats looking to replicate Edwards’ win in a future statewide election will almost certainly need to run the table here.