Former Louisiana Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson launched his long-awaited campaign on Monday to succeed his termed-out Gov. John Bel Edwards. A win would make him the first African American elected statewide since Reconstruction. While Wilson doesn’t have any serious opposition from fellow Democrats in sight, he'll be in for a difficult campaign this fall in a state that Donald Trump took 58-40, and where no Democrats other than Edwards have prevailed statewide in more than a decade.
Wilson joins a roster for the Oct. 14 all-party primary that currently consists of self-funding independent Hunter Lundy and a quartet of notable Republicans: Attorney General Jeff Landry, Treasurer John Schroder, state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, and state Rep. Richard Nelson. The field could expand further because GOP Rep. Garret Graves is still flirting with a campaign while another Republican, state House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, says he’s interested in running if the congressman sits it out. In the likely event that no one secures a majority, a runoff would take place on Nov. 18 between the top-two vote-getters, regardless of party.
If Wilson, whose only prior run for office was a failed 2007 bid for the Lafayette City-Parish Council, is to keep the governor’s office in Democratic hands, he may need this year’s race to resemble something of a cross between Edwards’ shocking 2015 blowout win and his tight reelection fight four years later. During his first campaign, then-state House Minority Leader Edwards spent much of his time trying to convince his own party that he actually could beat the GOP frontrunner, Sen. David Vitter, rather than merely occupy a runoff spot that could have instead gone to a less problematic Republican like Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne.
Indeed, as the book Long Shot reminds us, we wrote in May that the race would only become interesting if another Democrat ran and split the vote with Edwards, which could have allowed Dardenne (or another Republican, Scott Angelle) to advance and beat Vitter in round two. We weren’t alone, as both former Sen. Mary Landrieu and state Party Chair Karen Carter Peterson privately but unsuccessfully urged Edwards to drop out and run for attorney general instead.
An Edwards-Vitter runoff did indeed transpire, but it didn't yield the easy Vitter win so many Democrats had dreaded—quite the opposite. The Democrat benefited from outgoing GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal’s horrific unpopularity, as well as a cross-party endorsement from Dardenne. Edwards, who emphasized his own career in the Army Rangers, also capitalized on the “serious sin” that Vitter had acknowledged years before with a jaw-dropping ad accusing the Republican of choosing “prostitutes over patriots.” Edwards went on to pull off a mammoth 56-44 victory in a race that just months earlier had looked all but impossible for him to win.
Wilson may be hoping that while Landry lacks anything like Vitter’s personal baggage, the extremist Republican frontrunner would also be an effective foil should the two compete in a runoff. The former Transportation secretary, without mentioning Landry or anyone else by name, started drawing a contrast this week when he said, “I would consider myself a bridge builder, figuratively and literally, not someone who burns bridges. That’s a distinct difference between me and other candidates.”
The attorney general, though, seems to recognize that he needs to make peace with some of the Republicans he’s alienated in the past in order to avoid Vitter’s fate. Notably, Landry recently sat down with Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who had been preparing to run himself until he decided two months ago to seek reelection instead. The charm offensive seems to be working, as Nungesser said that the man he’d once called “not a good person” had now shown him a part of himself “I never saw or didn’t know about before.”
If Landry or another Republican advances to a runoff with Wilson after an ugly intraparty fight, however, the Democrat will still need to put together a coalition that can earn him a majority of the vote. Edwards’ 51-49 win in 2019 over wealthy businessman Eddie Rispone offers a blueprint for such a coalition even though Wilson won’t have the advantages of incumbency that the governor brought to that race.
In that race four years ago, Edwards benefited from high turnout among African American voters in and around the key cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Shreveport. Also critical was Edwards’ strong performance in well-educated suburbs like Jefferson Parish, a large and historically Republican area just outside of New Orleans. That community hadn’t supported a Democrat for president since JFK in 1960, but Edwards took it 57-43—even though Trump had carried the parish by double digits in both of his campaigns.
And while Rispone still won most of the state's rural areas, he didn't perform nearly as well as Republicans usually do. One key reason was his ugly primary battle against a fellow Republican, Rep. Ralph Abraham, after which Edwards worked hard to fan the flames of intraparty animosity by reminding Abraham’s constituents about the attacks Rispone had leveled at their congressman. Democrats will certainly be hoping that Landry and the other Republicans throw some brickbats each other’s way so that they can repeat this strategy.
Wilson, though, will also need to do what no other Black candidate for statewide office has been able to do in modern times and win over a large number of white voters. Edwards, according to political demographer Greg Rigamer, earned 30% of the white vote and 95% of African Americans, figures that both exceeded Joe Biden’s showings the following year.
Wilson acknowledged this difficult reality in a recent interview. “We in this state have a long sordid history with race," he said. "It is not lost on me, particularly on this anniversary of Bloody Sunday.” He added, “The weight of that is important. But I’m not running to be the Black governor. I’m running to be the governor. I want to be the best governor ever.”
P.S. While Wilson would be the first African American elected governor of Louisiana, two Republicans made history during Reconstruction when they each led the state for just over a month. Oscar Dunn, who was the first-ever Black lieutenant governor in American history, served as acting governor in 1871 for 39 days after Gov. Henry Clay Warmoth left the state to recover from injuries he’d sustained in an accident. Historian Brian K. Mitchell, who is distantly related to Dunn, wrote in his graphic history Monumental that Dunn used his time to appoint judges and issue a pardon, actions that led a furious Warmoth to hurry home to retake control.
Dunn died in office that year under still-mysterious circumstances, and a recovered Warmoth maneuvered to make sure the new lieutenant governor was Dunn’s longtime rival, P. B. S. Pinchback. Pinchback earned his place in the history books in 1872 when the state House voted to impeach Warmoth for his conduct in a disputed election, a move that suspended the governor from office and made Pinchback acting governor for the remaining 34 days of his term. It would take more than a century before Virginia Democrat Douglass Wilder became the first Black person elected governor of any state in 1989.
Pinchback, who, unlike Dunn, actually took the oath of office, is almost always credited as America’s first Black governor. But Mitchell argues that his ancestor not only deserves that title but that he was deliberately passed over by racist “Lost Cause” historians who tried to take advantage of Pinchback’s reputation for corruption.