Ugly Campaign

Louisiana’s Mudslinging Governor’s Race: Can Blue Dog Democrat John Bel Edwards Whip David Vitter?

U.S. Senator David Vitter has led a charmed life in Louisiana politics. But hounded by scandals and facing a real challenge from John Bel Edwards, Vitter may have run out of luck.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, via Getty

The Republican presidential candidates’ debate a week ago Tuesday night was just bitch slapping compared to the heavyweight pugilists’ battle televised an hour earlier by Louisiana Public Broadcasting for the state’s first debate in a gubernatorial runoff debate.

In the first of two debates leading up to the Louisiana gubernatorial runoff election to be held Nov. 21, State Rep. John Bel Edwards called his opponent, U.S. Senator David Vitter, “a liar, a cheater, and a stealer and I don’t tolerate that.”

Vitter fired right back, telling his opponent, “You are completely disingenuous.”

Since then the campaign has gotten even uglier.

Edwards is a Democrat, Vitter a Republican, and both are Catholics in a state with a strong evangelical presence—and a state that thrives on politics as blood sport. The central issue in this election campaign is a 2007 prostitution scandal that Vitter thought he had put behind him.

This election has become the dirtiest slug fest since the 1991 “race from hell” when Edwin Edwards (no kin to John Bel), though trailed by corruption scandals, won a record fourth term, crushing David Duke, the former Klan leader and closet Nazi. Both men later went to prison. Duke for mail fraud, Edwards for extortion tied to casino licenses. Such are the vagaries of democracy in the Bayou State.

The pivotal question this year is whether Edwards’s growing lead is a purely anti-Vitter phenomenon—and whether the senator is capable of reversing it. Vitter does possess samurai-level skills in slash-attack politics.

But a November 12 University of New Orleans (UNO) poll has Edwards at 54 percent, with a 22 point lead, gaining two points since the Tuesday debate.

A larger question looms: If the margin holds, does the Edwards surge signal a sputtering of the Republican Southern strategy that exploits racial division by demonizing President Obama?

Either way, if Edwards wins big, you can bet the car that Hillary Rodham Clinton will try to make him her new best friend.

A lawyer and West Point graduate who frequently cites the military academy’s honor code and touts himself as “pro-life and pro-gun,” Edwards is a blue dog Democrat—one of the last of the centrist-conservative Democrats, blue dogs being an endangered species in Congress and nearly extinct in statewide offices across the beef red South. But there is nothing cookie-cutter about Edwards’s views: Since taking his seat in the state legislature in 2006 and particularly since 2012, when he became state House minority leader, Edwards has spearheaded the opposition to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s deep cuts to higher education and his refusal to take Medicaid funds under Obamacare—to no avail.

A Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Vitter got his start as a state house member in 1992, winning the suburban district outside New Orleans previously held by David Duke. He positioned himself as a contrarian, pushed through a term limits bill, and waged a particularly aggressive campaign against former Republican Gov. Dave Treen to win a 1999 special election to the U.S. House. In 2004 he was elected to the Senate, and reelected in 2011. A typical conservative on abortion, gun rights, opposition to the Affordable Care Act and All Things Obama, Vitter became the GOP’s point man in Louisiana thanks to his enormous fundraising skills and his knack for engineering a Republican majority in the legislature and driving Democrats out of statewide offices. Currently Louisiana has not a single Democrat holding a statewide office.

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But this year Vitter has been wounded by a video interview that an alleged prostitute of years past gave to the American Zombie blog of local muckraker Jason Brad Berry. (He and I are not related, nor do we work together.) Several newspapers have reported that some of Wendy Cortez Ellis’s statements in the Zombie interview are inconsistent with what she said in interviews years before. But no one in the mainstream media has looked closely at those alleged discrepancies, nor in any depth at Vitter’s past entanglement in a separate scandal, in Washington, when his name surfaced as a customer of the escort service run by Deborah Jean Palfrey, the “D.C. Madam,” who committed suicide in 2008 after a federal money-laundering conviction. Having won reelection to the Senate after the scandals, Vitter presumably thought he had laid those matters to rest.

Edwards ran a TV ad during the recent LSU-Alabama football game, claiming that Vitter missed a key vote on a veterans’ issue to take a call from Palfrey. Vitter responded on two levels. He has run ads showing him and his family at the dinner table, with a voice-under stressing his personal redemption and forgiveness of his wife. His other ads have attacked Edwards as being a liberal ally of President Obama. Vitter’s new ads defending him on the prostitution accusations are consistent with his press conference in 2007, saying that he had committed “a very serious sin,” which he and his wife privately resolved. And Wendy Vitter, a New Orleans lawyer, still campaigns for her husband and calls him “my best friend.”

But media coverage and the Edwards ad-buys resuscitating the old scandals have jolted Vitter’s popularity, particularly among Republicans.

“Vitter is dropping in the polls and feeling his lead slipping away, so his paranoia and desperation are kicking in,” Rolf McCollister, a prominent Republican, wrote in the Greater Baton Route Business Report, of which he is publisher, in September.

“He is throwing low blows and cheap shots using the ‘liberal’ tag and an Obama photo as his worn-out weapons.”

Raymond Strother, a retired Washington, D.C., political consultant, got his start in Louisiana in the ’60s. Although he now lives in Montana, Strother visits Louisiana often and still closely follows the state’s politics. Strother, a Democrat, predicted before the runoff in a background memo to friends (used here with permission) that the election would “turn into a referendum on Obama. It doesn’t matter that Edwards has never even met Obama… Remember, race determines most elections in the South. A Democrat can seldom win more than 20 percent of the white vote in any Deep South state.”

And, according to the UNO poll, Edwards had 42 percent of the white vote with two days to go before the election.

And despite little backing from the Democratic National Committee, Edwards led the open primary against three GOP candidates with 40 percent of the vote. Vitter came in second at 23 percent.

Vitter has the backing of industry and big business groups. Edwards’s most important endorsement came from the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, a powerhouse in statewide elections. Sheriffs in the larger towns or cities have sizable staffs to run the parish courthouses; they maintain campaign organizations and are not restricted by term limits.

It also helps Edwards, 49, that his brother, Daniel, 47, is Tangipahoa Parish sheriff—a fourth-generation sheriff in a sprawling family of lawyers, politicians, and law enforcement officials with deep Louisiana roots.

Tangipahoa is a heavily rural civil parish whose seat, the town of Amite (population 4,141) is 82 miles north of New Orleans. Edwards’s law firm is in Amite; he lives in nearby Roseland (population 1,165). For much of the last century, the parish, which is 30 percent African-American, was known as “Bloody Tangipahoa,” with a history of lawlessness that included a gruesome chapter involving the Ku Klux Klan. That stigma changed under Sheriff Frank Edwards, John Bel’s father.

“Frank Edwards was one of the first sheriffs that hired blacks,” says Donald Bell, the African-American pastor of New Life Outreach Ministries in the town of Hammond.

“Frank was balanced. Everybody loved him. John Bel had good training from his daddy. I was close to Frank. He lived and died politics. If Frank told you, ‘Jerry can’t beat John,’ you could bet that Jerry wasn’t gonna beat John. And Frank would give you two, three reasons why. He was a good Catholic guy. They were committed, just like John Bel—he doesn’t miss Mass. John Bel is a people person, down to earth, what you see is what you get.”

The pastor refers to a monthly prayer breakfast that Sheriff Daniel Edwards, the candidate’s brother, started 12 years ago. “Every month we go to a different church. Everyone who has questions or wants to talk, they do. We go to a white Baptist church, the Presbyterians, we go all over Tangipahoa Parish. In these meetings they don’t see white or black, Republican or Democrat. They try to get everyone unified, in one accord.”

“A lot of people might say the Edwards have a political a monopoly,” he continues, warming to his topic. “But they are well liked. I’m 55 and I’ve been pastoring 25 years. If I had something in my church, John Bel would come be a part of the service, not just mine but every church in Tangipahoa. He’s a communicator. He got along with the NAACP and the school board. When he first decided to run it was a majority black district, drawn up for a black. Because of him being well liked, he won hands down.”

Even in a state famous for its political dynasties, the Edwards clan takes a back seat to no one. Sheriff Edwards’s wife, Blair Downing Edwards, is a juvenile court judge in Tangipahoa. And Frank Edwards III is police chief in the town of Independence, which also lies inside the parish. And the family has some of the deepest roots in the state.

“My great-great-great-great grandfather, Daniel Edwards, fought in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814 alongside Andrew Jackson,” says Sheriff Daniel Edwards, who played catcher on the LSU baseball team before he graduated from Loyola Law School and then got into into politics and law enforcement. “Jackson gave him a sword. My cousin Andrew Edwards in Pontchatoula has the sword. The first Daniel served in the legislature of what was then the Republic of West Florida. That’s where the term Florida Parishes originated with respect to Louisiana. Another ancestor, Morgan Edwards, settled in Madisonville [a nearby town bordering Lake Pontchartrain.] I have a brother named Morgan. My great great grandfather was Millard Filmore Edwards, sheriff in 1898. He had a son Frank Edwards, who was sheriff from 1928-48—my grandfather. He also served in the Louisiana Senate. My dad was an only child. Frank M. Edwards Jr. served as sheriff from 1968-80. I was elected sheriff in 2003.”

When asked why he was still a Democrat, Daniel Edwards replied, “It’s the party we better relate to. It’s more inclusive. I’m more of a fiscal conservative, but I think people who can’t take care of themselves we owe some degree of help. I was born that way and still believe that way. We were all reared strongly in the Catholic faith. I am pro-life and pro-second amendment.”

The hypocrisy and character issues that Edwards has used against Vitter are those on which Edwards will rise or fall come Saturday’s election. But when you talk to people in his home parish, his appeal is more often linked to inclusivity, his religion, and about living amid people of different colors and creeds who coexist with some harmony in a downhome Southern way.

“Tangipahoa is really a melting pot on the North Shore [of Lake Pontchartrain], a lot of Italians, African-Americans, whites, and we even have a community toward Livingston, outside my district, of Hungarians,” says State Senator Ben Nevers, a veteran Democrat, who lives in the sawmill town of Bogalusa, and has long represented an area that is majority white. “Most people want to vote for a person more than a party. What disappoints me most is that parties are trying to run the government, and I don’t think that will work.”

Nevers won his last election by 300 votes, “the closest I’ve ever had and I’ll be honest, I should have responded to mail outs linking me and the president. I’ve never met Obama, never sent him money. I disagree with many of his positions but I support many others. It seems to be the only thing Republicans have to throw at you—Obama. Republicans are throwing nothing but Obama at John Bel.”

Indeed, while Edwards blasted away at Vitter for dishonesty and lack of character, the senator fired back, just as Strother predicted, picturing Edwards as another version of Obama.

But try as he might, Vitter never landed a knockout punch, and in a post-debate poll, Edwards had extended his lead over Vitter by two points.

What a difference a year makes.

A year ago this month, Vitter stage-managed the U.S. Senate election of Baton Rouge Congressman Dr. Bill Cassidy over three-term incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu. Cassidy avoided the press whenever possible, as Vitter has done until the final days of this election. Cassidy limited his debate appearances, as Vitter did in the first primary. Cassidy ran lurid TV ads showing Landrieu cheek to cheek with Obama, like Desdemona and Othello. On election night, Vitter took the stage with Cassidy, grabbing air time and stopping short of announcing for governor.

Somewhere in the last 12 months, however, Vitter lost his mojo. And, apparently, his common sense.

“Vitter may be forgiven for his past ‘sins,’ but he is still mean-spirited, vindictive, and threatening to people,” publisher McCollister of the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report opined as the senator ran harsh ads against his GOP opponents in the open primary, slamming Lt. Governor Jay Dardenne, a moderate Republican, and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, a right-wing Cajun. Now Angelle is angry at Vitter and Dardenne has endorsed Edwards, a move that offended certain of Republican die-hards.

“The behavior of [Dardenne] endorsing Edwards is akin to that of a jilted man firing indiscriminately at his wife’s car, mindless of the collateral harm and injury to many innocent people,” fumed Peter Egan, chairman of the Republican Party in St. Tammany Parish, in a wondrous metaphor on political betrayal. St. Tammany (named with dripping irony for Tammany Hall in New York) is a GOP stronghold on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.

But such signs of disarray offer no guarantee of easy victory for Edwards. Republicans are much better at turning out their vote, and, as Ray Strother brooded in his memo, “unless Vitter is actually in jail, the hate vote will go to him. In fact, in jail he would still get that vote. Hate is stronger than all the damage that has been done to Louisiana in the past eight years under Bobby Jindal.”

But Strother ignores the surpassing irony of this political season: after the hookers, Bobby Jindal has been David Vitter’s most severe liability.

The least guarded secret in Louisiana politics is how much Jindal and Vitter, both Republicans, Ivy Leaguers, and Rhodes scholars, detest each other. Vitter timed his 2007 mea culpa press conference with his wife Wendy on the same day Jindal announced for governor. Guess who got the big coverage?

Now the tables have turned on Vitter: the financial quagmire that Jindal—who this week officially abandoned his campaign for the presidency—created in his eight years as governor is so vast that while Republicans in other states are all still busy running against Obama, no matter who their real opponents are, Vitter is left in the peculiar position of running not merely against Edwards or Obama but “against Baton Rouge,” as the senator keeps saying. That is not an easy swallow for Republicans who hold a legislative majority. GOP Senate President John Alario recently attended a fundraising lunch for Edwards at a French Quarter restaurant, and when asked why, quipped that he liked good food.

The new governor’s first order of business in 2016 will be a special legislative session to confront the budget crash. Jindal imposed draconian cuts on higher education to offset the skyrocketing health care costs created by his expensive alternative to Obamacare: UNO, once a rising regional research hub, lost 183 professors—39 percent of its full-time faculty. Some 290,000 people in the state have no health coverage, because Jindal refused Medicaid funds under Obamacare on ideological grounds. Edwards has said he will accept the funds, which would at least be a first step in stanching the hemorrhaging state budget.

While Vitter tries to tar Edwards with Obama, Edwards has a stronger guilt-by-association card in pairing Vitter with Jindal, the most unpopular governor in Louisiana history and easily its worst, at least since 1939 when Dick Leche became the first governor in Louisiana to be sent to prison. To be sure, Jindal faces no indictment, other than in a political sense: even Republicans are now bailing on Vitter.

So are center-conservative blue dog Democrats like Ben Nevers, the state senator allied with Edwards. “We have a lot of poor people in Louisiana who deserve health care and there should be some provision for them when they can’t afford insurance,” Nevers says. “I supported the expansion of Affordable Care Act in this state. I filed bills for three years giving Jindal the latitude to submit a waiver [to secure Medicaid funds]. He never even made application. We have a quarter of a million people or more in our state without health care… The Obama attacks are a racial strategy. I don’t know what percentage to put on it, but the race issue is alive in Louisiana. People play that card, and it’s wrong. We need to get past that and build up.”

Whoever wins on Saturday faces a staggering deficit created by Jindal. When he took office in 2007, he inherited a $900 million budget surplus from his Democratic predecessor, Kathleen Blanco. But after privatizing six Louisiana public health care hospitals (a system linked to medical school education and begun under Gov. Huey Long during the Depression), Jindal drove the state budget into a “structural deficit” between $800 million and $1.6 billion, according to Moody’s Investors.

Louisiana’s next governor must repair the huge financial damage caused by Jindal in creating a Republican experimental laboratory on health care.

As Vitter reels from blowback against Jindal, after both gained power and popularity in demonizing Obama, there is resonance in Dante’s words from The Inferno: “Each sinner swathes himself in his own torment.”

Although John Bel Edwards has fought Vitter with a bare-knuckle intensity which the senator has not previously encountered, those who know Edwards well see a compassion, in health care and other Democratic issues, rooted in his upbringing.

“Those kids in the Edwards family could have gone to any private, all-white high school in this state, but they chose to go to Amite High, a public school,” says Louis Nick Joseph, an African-American council member of Tangipahoa.

“That’s they way they were raised. The mother is a nurse who worked at Lallie Kemp charity hospital in Independence. Jindal tried to close it but John Bel fought it and we kept it open. If you line up all the kids in that family, I don’t care which one you pick, you’ll be right. I’m retired military, three years a U.S. paratrooper and 32 years in National Guard. I’m a Vietnam veteran and I’ll fall on the sword for John Bel Edwards.”

Jason Berry is author of Last of the Red Hot Poppas, a comic novel about Louisiana politics, and Render unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, among other books.