By Richard Livingstone
Today sees one of the few electoral tests this year for the Democrats as Louisiana goes to the polls to elect its governor. In the first vote of a two-stage election, the big question in this usually Republican state is whether the Democrat lead will be so great that the second vote isn’t needed.
Forty five of the fifty US states elect their governors and state legislatures in even-numbered years, coinciding either with the presidential election or the mid-term congressional elections (or in the case of New Hampshire and Vermont, both).
The remaining five elect theirs in odd-numbered years – termed Off Years – to ensure that the state-level elections are not politically contaminated by federal elections. In 2017 the two east coast members of this club, New Jersey and Virginia, elected new Democratic governors. The next month sees the three strongly Trump-voting states take their turn. Whilst Kentucky and Mississippi vote on 5 November, Louisiana’s unusual voting system sees an election tomorrow with a second vote on 16 November if the result is not conclusive.
Donald Trump won all three states easily in 2016: the closest result was an 18% lead in Mississippi. But all local factors mean that all three governorships are within reach of the Democrats. Don’t get too excited: all three states are still likely to vote for Trump in 2020. But victories will put a spring in the Democrats’ step and force the Republicans further on to the defensive for next year.
Louisiana should be the easiest of the three for the Democrats to win (Mississippi is interestingly the hardest). A mixture of incumbency, history and culture makes them favourites and polls put sitting governor John Bel Edwards well ahead of his rivals.
A Republican State?
But let’s first take a look at that Trump victory in the swamps of the Pelican State. He took 58% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 38%. That margin is fairly similar to the Republican leads in the Obama elections: 19% in 2008 and 17% in 2012. But it is a big shift from earlier elections: Hillary’s husband Bill won the state in both his elections comfortably (by 12% in 1996).
The pattern of voting shows that the Democrats did reasonably well in urban areas (a 66% lead in the city of New Orleans, smaller leads in state capitol Baton Rouge and the state’s third largest city of Shreveport) and rural areas with large African American populations. But the Republicans won the suburbs and romped home with huge leads in whiter parts of rural Louisiana, particularly in the Cajun areas in the state’s southwest. The map below shows the lead by each party by parish (the Louisianan term for county).
Closer detail, by precinct (the US term for polling district) can be found on this excellent map produced by the New York Times.
But this overwhelming Republican victory in a federal election is not always replicated in local elections in the state. Like most of the South, Louisiana has many conservative white voters who vote Republican in national elections and yet still register themselves as “Democrat” on the electoral register.
Unlike the rest of the Deep South, the picture is complicated further by demographics. Louisiana was originally a French colony and was also ruled by the Spanish for forty years and still has a large Catholic population, over a quarter of all Louisianans, particularly in the south of the state. That makes its electorate socially conservative on issues such as abortion but not as conservative on issues that fire up southern evangelicals.
Uniquely among the southern states, New Orleans had a sizable free African American population when it became part of the United States. As a large city, it also had a reasonably large Jewish population – Louisiana was the first state to elect a Jewish senator, Benjamin Judah, who (despite probably also being gay) went on to become one of the most important members of the Confederacy’s cabinet. So its ethnicity has at times enabled more liberal values to get through.
The Long Shadow
But it is a later Louisianan politician that did most to make the state’s politics stand out from its neighbours. Huey Long is arguably the most successful left-wing governor in the USA’s history and, despite having a fulltime political career of just over seven years before his assassination aged just 42, is still the most revered politician from the state eight decades later. Long stood as an anti-Ku Klux Klan candidate at a time when being a member of the country club and the Klan was practically a prerequisite for election. He taxed the rich and corporations to build much-needed infrastructure projects, build up an education system and help the poor – black and white alike.
Long’s relatives (who sadly did not share Huey’s anti-racist views) followed him into politics and later Democrats would often adopt Long’s Populist left policies successfully. These political descendants would sometimes share Long’s faults too – corruption and bullying.
Edwin Edwards, elected governor four times between the 1970s and 1990s, was a clear successor in both populist and corrupt practice. He became the first Southern governor to pass legislation to protect LGBT employment rights but was tried on several occasions for fraud before finally being convicted in 2002. He had the luck in his final election in 1991 to be standing against David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in a campaign with unofficial slogans “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important” and “Vote for the Lizard, Not the Wizard”.
John Bel Edwards
Thankfully, current governor John Bel Edwards (no relation of Edwin) is no crook but his administration has marked a return to some of the more praiseworthy aspects of the Long legacy after a twenty-year gap filled by Republicans and fiscally-centrist Democrats. Governor Edwards has expanded Medicare (the federal health system) significantly over the past four years, invested in education and cut taxes for low income families. And yet he has also balanced the deficit he inherited from his Republican predecessor Bobby Jindal through, in true Huey Long style, putting up corporation taxes.
But how on earth did Edwards win in 2015, in a state that gave Trump such a large vote only a year later?
Edwards was a good pick for the state: a devoutly Catholic ex-paratrooper from a rural parish. But he also got lucky. Firstly, Governor Bobby Jindal’s legacy was one of financial problems and a crumbling education system and would have had an uphill struggle to be re-elected even if he had not been term-limited. Secondly, the Republican field of candidates was broad, divided and fractious whilst JB Edwards was the only strong Democratic candidate. Finally, the leading Republican candidate, then senator David Vitter, had previously admitted being a regular client of a Washington madam who later hung herself.
Edwin Edwards once quipped that the only way that he could lose an election was if he was found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. Vitter had come perilously close to that.
The 2015 election
John Bel Edwards consequently took the most votes in the first round of that election, held on 24 October 2015. More votes in total were cast for his three Republican rivals Vitter, Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne (shown in shades of red below) than for the Democratic candidates (shown in blue) but were fairly evenly split. Although Vitter qualified for the run-off between the two highest vote-getters a month later, he had a 17% gap to close.
Unfortunately for Vitter, not only did he have reputational baggage to deal with, he had also upset his Republican rivals. Jay Dardenne, a moderate Republican who was then serving as Lieutenant Governor, endorsed Bel Edwards a fortnight after the first round (Dardenne would go on to secure a post in Edwards’ administration). If Dardenne took all his votes with him, Edwards would be home and dry. In the end, Vitter’s campaign faltered and Edwards did slightly better than that.
Contrast the parish map below with the Trump-Clinton one. 29 parishes voted for Edwards that would vote for Trump a year later (and had voted for Romney three years before), with double-digit swings.
Of course, not all these parishes are of equal population. To show the shifts more simply, I have split the state into four regions, each with a population of between 1 million and 1.3 million.
The most populous is Greater New Orleans. The city of New Orleans itself (which fills Orleans parish) is strongly Democratic, but its suburbs are not, other than the majority African American St James and St John the Baptist parishes. St Tammany parish, on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain, is particularly Republican: Trump won by a 51% margin there. Nevertheless, this is usually the most left-leaning of the four regions.
To the north of Greater New Orleans lies East Louisiana, comprising the Greater Baton Rouge area and parishes to its east, taking in most of the Florida Parishes (the part of Louisiana bound by the Mississippi River, the border with the state of Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain). The Democrats can usually win East Baton Rouge parish, which includes the state capital and is the most populous in the state, and the small black-majority Iberville and St Helena parishes. In presidential elections, that is usually the limit of Democratic success.
he rest of the south of the state is formed by Acadiana, the swamps and bayous of Cajun country. French was the first language here until World War I and it is still strongly Catholic. Those swamps make it culturally cut off and often conservative. The largest city, Lafayette, sits in the centre and had almost twice as many Trump votes as ones for Clinton. So did the region’s second city, Lake Charles to the west. The third urban centre, the Houma-Thibodaux conurbation in the east, is even more Republican inclined. Overall, this is the most Republican region of the four in presidential elections.
The final region is North Louisiana, comprising central Louisiana (based around Alexandria), the northeast (around Monroe) and northwest (around Shreveport). Unlike the rest of the state, this region is religiously more typically “Southern” and baptist. The only sizable parish that usually votes Democratic is Caddo, based on Shreveport. Three small African-American majority parishes along the Mississippi also vote for the Democrats but the rest of this region voted for Trump in 2016.
In the 2016 election, this is how the four regions voted. Clinton only won Greater New Orleans, and then only narrowly. Trump had a massive 39% lead in Acadiana.
Contrast with the 2015 map. John Bel Edwards won all four regions, and managed to do even better in East Louisiana than in Greater New Orleans (This is probably due to a home advantage: Edwards hails from Tangipahoa parish whilst Vitter is from suburban New Orleans). The East Louisiana swing between the elections was over 20%. So too was the swing in Acadiana. The swing in North Louisiana was 15% whilst that for Greater New Orleans was 10%.
Fast forward to 2019
John Bel Edwards angered liberal Democrats earlier this year by saying that he would support stricter abortion controls and is also a supporter of “second amendment” gun rights. Those socially conservative positions could have lost him support from those voters.
But, outside of New Orleans itself, that is unlikely to do much damage. And whilst parts of New Orleans are among the most socially liberal in the South (indeed, within the US as a whole) that is not all the city and the lost votes would be most likely to be white liberals only.
In contrast, the 2015 map above suggests that taking a position that is popular with Catholics in the east and south of the state is smart politics. Edwards needs to shore up his vote here more than he needs to hold on to white liberal voters. Besides, recent polls suggest that even those voters realise that they have no other place to go and Edwards’ economic, education and health polices still chime with them.
There is a similar story with gun control. Whilst you might think that high crime rates in New Orleans would boost support for this, in reality there are many voters there that think a gun is their protection from this. In any case, support for gun rights is very high in the rural parts of the state. Given that there are a million alligators in Louisiana, perhaps this is understandable.
This time around, there are six candidates on the ballot. The Louisiana system has no party primaries and puts them all on one ballot: two Democrats (Edwards and liberal African American Omar Dantzler), three Republicans (Ralph Abraham, Eddie Rispone and Patrick Landry) and an independent (Gary Landrieu). Only three are likely to poll more than 5%: Edwards, Abraham and Rispone.
Ralph Abraham is currently the congressman for the state’s fifth district (in the north east of the state) whilst Eddie Rispone is a 70-year old wealthy businessman whose construction firm is based in Baton Rouge. Both are very much on the conservative end of the Republican party: Abraham was a member of the Tea Party whilst Rispone is a big Trump supporter. Whilst Abraham’s political name recognition initially made it likely that he would be the runner up in the first round (and could therefore proceed to the runoff election if Edwards did not reach 50% of the vote in the first round), Rispone has caught him in the polls thanks to using millions of his personal wealth to buy TV advertising. Five of the last six polls have put Rispone ahead, albeit only within the margin of error.
Whilst most polls do not show Edwards quite hitting 50%, all but one of those polls have identified significant numbers of undecided voters. If those undecideds either do not vote or are distributed similarly to the polling for the candidates, there would then be just about sufficient votes for Edwards to avoid the runoff.
Even if there is a November runoff, neither Abrahams or Rispone is reaching half of Edwards’ polling in the majority of recent polls and all the polls for the runoff show Edwards winning handily. The bad blood between the two leading Republicans would also seem likely to sour attempts to swing the votes of the candidate squeezed out behind the runoff Republican candidate.
The Republicans are now focused on trying to ensure that the runoff is held. Yesterday, Donald Trump flew into Lake Charles to hold a joint rally with both Abrahams and Rispone (and also to try to build bridges between the rival camps) and the party has funded anti-Edwards attacks adds to try to squeeze the Democratic vote.
It remains to be seen tomorrow whether they succeed and, if so, who would face Edwards on 16 November. But it currently looks as likely as not that the election could be decided this weekend.