Voters will deliver another verdict on whether a moderate Democrat can survive in a red Trump state when they go to the polls Saturday in Louisiana’s run-off race for governor.
“When you’re a Southern Democrat, you’re fully aware that things might not work out,” said Democratic strategist James Carville. “But in this instance, I’d rather be us than them.”
“Us” for Carville, the “ragin’ Cajun,” is Democrat John Bel Edwards, running for re-election against Republican businessman Eddie Rispone. Democrats are hoping for a second big win in a red state ten days after Democratic challenger Andy Beshear won the governor’s race in Kentucky.
“If John Bel wins, the one big story is impeachment at worst is a wash,” says Carville. “If it was bad for the Democrats, we would have picked that up in Kentucky. We’re not getting any indication there is a backlash.”
That would be different than in the elections that followed the contentious Senate vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when a backlash hurt Democrats.
“I saw it after Kavanaugh, I felt it after Kavanaugh,” Carville says, but now “I would rather be a House Democrat than a Senate Republican. Let the Senate stew,” he says.
What Carville will be watching for on Saturday is whether Edwards can hold the 34 percent share of the white vote that is critical to victory. Edwards, a graduate of West Point and an Army veteran, is as conservative on social issues as any Republican. He signed an abortion law that is one of the toughest in the nation, banning the procedure as early as six weeks. He cites his Catholic faith as a centerpiece in his life and politics. He’s a Second Amendment enthusiast, and his supporters worry that a Saturday vote competes with a day of hunting.
“He likes to tout how many times he’s been to the White House,” says Louisiana pollster John Couvillon. That’s up to nine times, including a state dinner last year.
“Edwards is not portraying himself as an enemy of the president,” Couvillon told the Daily Beast. “He doesn’t want to give partisans an extra reason to vote against him.”
What Couvillon will be looking for on Saturday is the strength of black turnout. On Election Day last month, 974,000 voters went to the polls in the state’s “jungle primary,” in which all candidates are on the same ballot, regardless of party, with the top two then facing off if no one tops 50 percent. He expects turnout on Election Day to increase by 50,000 to 100,000 in the runoff.
Early voting was up substantially in the runoff. In the October vote, there were 386,000 early or absentee ballots. Of those voters, 25 percent were black, and 41 percent were Republican. (Overall, 31 percent of Louisianans are black, and 31 percent of the electorate is Republican, which some overlap between those groups).
In the runoff, there were 498,000 early voters as of Wednesday night—an increase of 112,000 from October. Of those early voters, Couvillon identified 60,000 new voters, who hadn’t turned out in October. Forty-one percent of those new voters, he said, are black, and 29 percent are Republican—meaning the group is much blacker and less Republican than the overall electorate, “much like the Obama phenomenon.” Under Louisiana law, voters identify their race when they cast their ballot.
“You have this group of 60,000 that showed up out of nowhere,” he says, “and they’re much more Democrat-friendly. Republicans think Democrats are just getting them to the polls a week early. My thinking is that Democrats expanded the pie.”
That, of course, is the dream of Democrats—that anger about Trump has brought new voters into their fold. That tale will be told on Saturday.
The other factor impacting the vote is dissension in the Republican camp. The October primary included, along with Edwards and Rispone, Republican House member Ralph Abraham.
Rispone went after Abraham hammer and tongs for his high absentee rate for congressional votes, which was fair, but he also accused him of being disloyal to Trump and voting with Nancy Pelosi against Trump’s wall. The bad blood in the party boiled over and Abraham’s son-in-law contributed $5,000 to the Edwards campaign.
In a tight election, Rispone can’t afford any defections. Trump’s rally in Shreveport Thursday night was his second in the state in recent weeks, and at the first one, while Abraham was still on the ballot, the two GOP contenders didn’t appear on the stage at the same time. There’s no real love for Rispone in the party.
“His unabashed allegiance to Trump is the only thing that keeps Abraham in the game,” says Couvillon, who describes Rispone as a Louisiana version of Sheldon Adelson, someone who gives a lot of money to conservative causes and who has ran a “thoroughly mediocre campaign and he had $12 million to spend.”
If Edwards wins, it would be the second example this month of a Democrat triumphing in a red state. Larry Sabato, founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, has the race leaning Democrat.
“We don’t know of any poll that has Rispone up,” he told the Daily Beast, while noting that the race remains too close to call. While Trump’s 11th hour visit to Kentucky failed to elect Bevins, Sabato says Bevins—who finally conceded Thursday—would have lost by more without it.
In Louisiana, says Sabato, “the big question is Trump’s election eve rally. He might be able to pull Rispone across the finish line.”