CROSS-WISE: Edwards-Vitter Runoff Smacks of 1995

by Pearson Cross

Similarities to the Foster-Fields contest two decades are aplenty, with some glaring exceptions.

Photo by Robin May

Results from Election Day, Saturday, Oct. 24, signaled a significant change in Louisiana politics as David Vitter, the Republican juggernaut, stumbled badly in his first attempt to win election as governor of Louisiana. Although this scenario had been forecast for weeks by polls showing Vitter’s declining support and sinking favorability ratings, his fall was breathtaking nevertheless. Barely one in five of the Louisianans braving the bad weather cast their vote for David Vitter. With a voter turnout estimated at 38.5 percent, and three other well-funded candidates on the ballot, Vitter was the first choice of only 23 percent (256,105) of the 1.11 million citizens who cast ballots. This is quite a steep decline from the 51 percent of voters (943,014) who picked him to replace John Breaux as senator in 2004. And it’s an even further decline from his re-election bid in 2010, when Vitter first faced voters after his “serious sin” became public, defeating Democratic Congressman Charlie Melancon handily and creating his reputation for political invulnerability.

That the principal author of this striking defeat should be an unknown and underfunded Democratic state representative from Amite, John Bel Edwards, borders on the unbelievable. Edwards capitalized on his advantage as being the only major Democrat on the ballot. Spared the fratricide that characterized the campaigns of the three major Republican candidates, Edwards traveled the state, introducing himself to voters as a conservative Democrat. Voters liked what they saw and gave Edwards more votes than he, or anyone else, had anticipated, thus setting up a runoff election between a conservative Democrat and an even more conservative Republican. As elections are “set pieces” inviting comparisons with other elections, Edwards’ victory has led pundits to consider which past election the current one most resembles and what can be learned from the comparison.

Though not a perfect parallel, the race between Edwards and Vitter resembles, in some respects, the 1995 contest between Mike Foster and Cleo Fields, after each had emerged from a crowded gubernatorial field to gain a place in the runoff. In that race Foster, an obscure Republican state senator, led the primary field with 26 percent of the vote, followed by Democratic Congressman Cleo Fields, who received 19 percent of the vote. In that race, one Republican and one Democrat, the most conservative candidate and the most liberal (major) candidate, made the runoff. While more votes were cast for Democratic candidates than for Republican candidates in the 1995 primary election, in the runoff, voters awarded Foster 64 percent of the vote to easily outdistance Fields (36 percent). In the 1995 campaign, most of the supporters of Mary Landrieu (18 percent), “Buddy” Roemer (18 percent), “Phil” Preis (9 percent) and Melinda Schwegmann (5 percent) flocked to the Mike Foster banner, giving him an easy victory over Fields. Can Vitter expect the same support to accrue to his cause, now that the lesser candidates are cleared away? What lessons does the 1995 race hold for the 2015 race?

Photo by Robin May

First, a few important factors distinguish the Vitter-Edwards race from the Foster-Fields race. Missing is the black-white racial dynamic that was an important part of 1995 contest. Second, the “lack-of-familiarity” factor that in 1995 affected the Republican aspirant now obscures the Democratic candidate. Unlike Foster, who rose from a state Senate seat to capture a spot in the runoff, Louisianans are very familiar with David Vitter, having elected him to the state Legislature, the U.S. Congress, and for the past 11 years, to the U.S. Senate. Despite this familiarity, Vitter’s favorability ratings have reached new lows in recent months as the Angelle, Dardenne and Edwards campaigns chipped away at his already tarnished reputation. According to an Oct. 15 survey released by LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs, the number of Louisianans viewing Vitter “favorably” has declined to 30 percent, while those who view him “unfavorably” has risen to 41 percent.

Like Foster in 1995, Edwards is a relatively unknown newcomer to Louisiana politics with a thin political résumé. Yet that seems to be working for him instead of against him, much as it did for Foster. Polls suggest that he has emerged from the first part of the campaign relatively unscathed, as his “unfavorables” have not changed dramatically, while favorable opinions of him have risen from 13 to 23 percent. Vitter’s sizeable war chest and the fundraising advantage that served him well in the first leg of the election will, in large part, be negated in the second as Democrats in Louisiana and across the nation open their wallets in an attempt to win back a Southern state governorship and defeat Vitter, who has been something of a bête noir for them.

Returning to the Fields-Foster example, how well will Edwards perform in the runoff? A survey completed before the fi rst round of voting predicted that Vitter would join Edwards in the runoff, but then forecast an Edwards victory (50 to 38 percent). While this remains speculative, Edwards does appear to be in a better position than was Fields at a similar point in 1995. On Oct. 24, Edwards won a plurality in 34 parishes and an outright majority in seven, with a high-water mark of 73 percent in St. Helena. His average percentage in the 41 parishes where he had a plurality was 45.8 percent. In contrast, Fields did not win an outright majority in any parish, while taking a plurality in only 20 parishes with an average percentage of 28.5 percent. The conclusion to be drawn from this comparison is that Edwards’ position vis-à-vis Vitter is significantly stronger than was Fields’ position against Foster, which suggests that Edwards may find that additional 10 percent support that would seal the deal and put him in the governor’s mansion.

Vitter will also have to overcome a lack of support from the vanquished Republican candidates, Angelle and Dardenne. Too much blood has been spilled for either of these campaigns to endorse Vitter. In fact, Angelle went so far as to say that “we have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana if we elect David Vitter as governor,” painting a Vitter win as “an embarrassment” to the state. To the extent that Angelle’s view speaks for any significant slice of the Louisiana electorate, Vitter faces an uphill struggle toward 50 percent and victory. While it is not wise to count out Vitter prematurely, many Louisianans are starting to consider a future without a Gov. Vitter, and that is quite a new idea for those following Louisiana politics.

Dr. Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, Southern and Louisiana politics. Contact him at [email protected].