CROSS WISE: Term of Endearment With a Republican-controlled Legislature running interference, can Gov. John Bel Edwards parlay public support into a second term?

by Pearson Cross

With a Republican-controlled Legislature running interference, can Gov. John Bel Edwards parlay public support into a second term? Short answer: probably not.

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Photo by Robin May

One of the more unfortunate aspects of American politics is that as soon as a candidate wins office, speculation begins about his or her prospects for re-election. This speculation has little to do with a candidate’s record; that has yet to be created. It has everything to do with party politics with its zero-sum approach to elections. Nowhere has this phenomenon been more evident than in the case of Gov. John Bel Edwards.

From the moment of his unlikely election last year, Edwards’ tenure in the governor’s office has been marked by a strident and vocal opposition designed to ensure that he serves only one term. In part this effort has been coordinated by the state GOP apparatus that is miffed at having swept the six other statewide offices, won a majority in both houses of the Legislature and yet been denied the most important seat of all, the governor’s. Running at a time of Republican ascendancy, Edwards benefited from a damaging internecine conflict between three well-funded GOP opponents, and, from his point of view, got the best possible opponent for the general election: U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

Opposition also comes from those who covet Edwards’ seat for themselves. Attorney General Jeff Landry, in particular, seems bent on making Edwards’ tenure in the governor’s seat miserable with near daily assaults on his administration. Landry has sought to remove the funding for his office from gubernatorial control, disagreed on how coastal restoration monies should be spent and contested Edwards’ executive order banning LGBT discrimination in government contracts. Landry’s constant sniping hinders the governor’s efforts to undo the effects of former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s ineptitude and bad management, burnishes Landry’s conservative credentials and keeps his name in the voting public’s consciousness.

A second interested politician is Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle. Angelle, barely shut out of a gubernatorial runoff, is now seeking the 3rd District Congressional seat being vacated by Charles Boustany. This replicates the strategy employed by his former boss, Jindal, who bided his time in the 1st Congressional District seat after the bruising 2003 gubernatorial race before launching his successful second bid for governor in 2007. Running for Congress and winning twice before the next gubernatorial election (2016, 2018) would keep Angelle’s campaign skills sharp and his fundraising apparatus humming.

Of course, even without Landry and Angelle, Edwards’ re-election prospects are bleak. A September report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the Louisiana economy slowing nearly everywhere. This finding confirmed an August article in Governing Magazine, which ranked Louisiana’s economy as the 46th healthiest in the U.S. This continuing economic malaise is reflected in the state budget. Edwards must find the money to fill a $1.2 billion budget hole that will open when the onepenny sales tax expires in 2018. His best hope rests on the state budget task force convened under the direction of economist Jim Richardson and Louisiana Revenue Secretary Kimberly Robinson, but the chances that they will discover a painless way to balance this budget are nonexistent. In tax-averse Louisiana, this is a doomsday scenario that foretells the end of a political career.

As if that weren’t enough, Edwards will need the cooperation and partnership of the Legislature to do anything constructive. Yet the Legislature recently demonstrated the limits of its willingness to help in the recent second session, which concluded without fully funding TOPS. If representatives in the House were unwilling to make the popular TOPS program whole, one can only imagine their intransigence on budgetary matters unsupported or opposed by a well-heeled constituency.

Adding to Edwards’ troubles, the election of 2019 marks the second wave of legislative departures because of term limits. The first wave made its deepest cuts in 2007 when nearly 60 percent of sitting House members were forced from office. Anticipating the opportunities presented by so many open seats, Vitter organized the Committee for a Republican Majority, which helped elect more conservative Republicans to seats that were previously held by Democrats. By 2011, this process had reached its conclusion: both houses had Republican majorities. Anticipating similar opportunities, Edwards’ rival, AG Landry, has just assumed leadership of a reconstituted CRM. Twelve years later, the same scenario will ensure a multitude of open seats in the House (36 percent) and Senate (41 percent). These seats provide Landry with the opportunity to create an even stronger and more ideological Republican majority in both houses. Should his hopes be realized, this change would be particularly dramatic in the Senate which, under the leadership of President John Alario, has resisted most of the more radical impulses dominating in the House. As part of the campaign to stack the Legislature, Edwards will be depicted as a free-spending, tax-raising Democrat, and those candidates recruited by Landry to run for open seats will go out of their way to make sure his legacy is impugned, poisoned and ridiculed.

That’s really unfortunate, because in his short time in office Edwards has met adversity with grace and courage. Heroics in the face of floods and shootings are unlikely to save Edwards in 2019, unless the competition between Landry and Angelle once again poisons the GOP’s efforts to reclaim the governorship. In the meantime, Edwards is likely to persevere despite ill fortune, remembering the West Point motto: “Duty, Honor, Country.”

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, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected].