The best I can say in my defense is, as St. Paul wrote, “we see through a glass, darkly.” Several months ago, looking through that dark glass, I could not see a path for Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite) in this year’s Louisiana governor’s race.
I wrote in May on nola.com:
A Democrat — even one as effective, honest and politically moderate as Edwards — cannot win a Louisiana statewide election. Twenty years ago, someone like Edwards would have been unbeatable. Today, however, a vote for the Amite Democrat is, for all practical purposes, a vote for Vitter.
Now, after Saturday night’s election returns are in, I’ll say it: I was wrong. Edwards now has a clear, plausible path to victory over his runoff opponent, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
I’m not prepared to say that Edwards will be Louisiana’s next governor (let’s see a poll in about ten days, after Vitter, his super PAC and the Republican Governors’ Association dump a million or two in negative spots on him). But as of Sunday night, it is not hard to see how Edwards can defeat Vitter.
Here’s why I now believe Edwards can win:
Vitter is crippled, perhaps mortally. When I wrote my column in May, Vitter had a commanding lead in the polls — 38 percent to Edwards 25 percent. He was moving up, not down.
On Saturday night, those numbers were almost exactly reversed. Consider this: An incumbent United States senator, with more financial resources than all his opponents combined, limped into the runoff with pitiful 23 percent of the vote. The majority of Republican voters went against the man, just weeks ago, who most considered the prohibitive favorite to become Louisiana’s next governor.
Saturday’s election was, simply, a stunning reversal in Vitter’s fortunes.
Given the various scandals that began to emerge days before the voting, it is possible that if the election had been held one week later, Vitter would not have made the runoff.
Edwards may be a Democrat, but he is not Mary Landrieu. It will not be that easy to paint Edwards as a close ally and supporter of Barack Obama. Edwards has never served in Washington, D.C. He is a “pro-life” NRA member who opposes Common Core. Most important, Edwards is a West Point graduate who served eight years as a U.S. Army ranger.
Vitter will try to paint Edwards as Barack Obama’s half-brother. “John Bel Edwards is not a casual supporter of Barack Obama,” Vitter said on election night. “He is a true believer.” Good luck with that. Edwards showed how his sterling West Point record might help him in the runoff when he said in his election night speech, referring to the honor code at his alma mater, “David Vitter wouldn’t last five minutes at West Point.”
Remember, Edwards has already endured several weeks, and almost a million dollars in attacks spots, by the Republican Governor’s Association. And, yet, he earned an impressive 40 percent of the vote on Saturday. Attacking Edwards as an Obama clone may not be as potent an attack against Edwards as it was against Mary Landrieu.
They won’t endorse Edwards, but Republicans Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne will likely not endorse Vitter. The perception that Republicans are not united (and they will not be) will hurt Vitter. More than that, Edwards may not have a difficult time picking up the votes he needs from the anti-Vitter GOP vote.
Edwards only needs about 25 percent to 30 percent of the non-Vitter Republican vote — and less, if substantial numbers of disaffected Republicans refuse to vote at all (or if Edwards substantially increases his black vote on Nov. 21).
A certain percentage (maybe 5 points) of Angelle’s and Dardenne’s combined 34 percent were likely Democrats who voted for one of the two Republicans for various reasons (Baton Rouge-area or Acadiana residents who voted for the home boy). Those Dardenne-Democrats or Angelle-Democrats will come home on Election Day without much effort.
Edwards will have to work to persuade the others to vote for him, but they have already voted against Vitter once. It is not difficult to see how Edwards could peel off a mere 25 percent of the remaining non-Vitter vote by appealing to their disgust or disenchantment with Vitter.
Looking at it another way, it’s not likely that Edwards will do any worse in the runoff than Sen. Mary Landrieu did last November (she earned 44 percent of the vote against Sen. Bill Cassidy in an election which saw a 44 percent statewide turnout, compared to 38.5 percent on Saturday).
Edwards should start this runoff with a floor of about 43 percent or 44 percent of the vote, maybe a point higher. That means he must pick up only an additional 6 or 7 percentage points from the combined 34 percent of Angelle and Dardenne (I’m already giving him about 4 points of that vote, i.e, the Democrats who supported the two other Republicans). If a fourth to a third of Angelle and Dardenne voters are truly unwilling to vote for Vitter (a not-unreasonable assumption), Edwards may have all the votes he needs.
All of this assumes that both campaigns will have GOTV efforts of equal effectiveness on Nov. 21. If Edwards, however, finds a way to substantially energize the black vote, he will not need as many former Dardenne-Angelle voters. Vitter might help him in that respect. Enduring relentless attacks about his alleged association with Obama might be just what Edwards needs to motivate the black vote.
Dardenne may not endorse Edwards, but his (and Angelle’s attacks on Vitter) will live on. Just imagine what the Edwards’ campaign can do with this powerful video, released on Saturday by the Dardenne campaign.
More Vitter scandals to come? The bizarre arrest on Friday of a private investigator, hired by Vitter’s campaign, who was apparently spying on Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand came too late to have any significant impact on voting. It remains to be seen how this story plays out in the coming days, but if it blossoms into a full-blown scandal, Vitter’s campaign could be seriously wounded.
And who knows what the super PACs opposing Vitter have been keeping on ice for the runoff? Whatever the case, you can bet that Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal, and more recent allegations by a former New Orleans prostitute, will be widely advertised in the coming weeks.
Now a few caveats:
Edwards must increase his black vote over the Oct. 24 primary. For example, the turnout in Orleans Parish was a pathetic 32 percent. He must do better.
Vitter will have all the money he needs and more. Vitter and his allies will attack Edwards relentlessly and may have more money for their messages than Edwards. And Vitter has proven repeatedly he can win elections and, when cornered by scandal, can make the election, not a referendum on him, but on someone else (see what he did to Charlie Melancon in 2010).
A Democrat has not won statewide office in Louisiana since 2008. There are more than 225,000 fewer white Democrats on the voting rolls in Louisiana since 2004. Edwards must win about 27 percent to 30 percent of the state’s white vote to win this election (depending on the rate of the black turnout). Mary Landrieu received about 18 percent of that vote last year. Edwards must outperform Landrieu with white votes by a large margin.
All in all, I believe that if you could choose which candidate you’d rather be on Nov. 21, today you’d want to be John Bel Edwards. That could change, of course. A month is a lifetime in politics.
But the election results don’t lie and they are unambiguous and clear: John Bel Edwards can beat David Vitter to become Louisiana’s next governor.