A friend of mine told me this anecdote about six weeks before the Oct. 24 primary: Months ago, when U.S. Sen. David Vitter was still pretending to care what people thought of him, he asked former Gov. Mike Foster to identify his (Vitter’s) biggest weakness as a candidate for governor. Foster responded, “David, people just don’t like you.”
Leave it to Paw-Paw to tell it like it is.
Several months and millions of dollars later, Louisiana voters gave Vitter the same answer.
As a result, the guy who seemed inevitable last May proved to be unelectable in November — so much so that he announced his political retirement during his concession speech. Vitter lost in a landslide to state Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat from Amite, who decided to run in 2013 while on a fishing trip with his legislative seatmate and close friend, state Rep. Sam Jones, a Democrat from Franklin, which, coincidentally, is also Mike Foster’s hometown.
The end of the David Vitter Era coincided with the end of the Bobby Jindal Era. How ironic that Louisiana’s two leading Republicans, who cannot stand one another, both bowed out within days of each other.
Which brings us to our recap of the political carnage in the wake of Louisiana’s statewide elections, known for more than 30 years as Da Winnas and Da Loozas. For the uninitiated, I focus not on the names that appeared on the ballot but rather on the players and forces that shaped the campaign and its aftermath. For them, the election results mean four years of either exhilaration or exile. Let’s get on with it, starting with …
1. Teacher Unions — After eight years in exile, teacher unions (and all unions) finally have a governor again. Edwards made it clear shortly after his victory that he won’t dismantle charter schools or vouchers, but he will help public employee unions survive the existential threat posed by so-called “paycheck protection” legislation, which would outlaw union dues check-offs. He also will put real money back into public education.
2. Trial Lawyers — They backed Edwards big time, and they helped elect many legislators. Many even supported new Attorney General Jeff Landry, who happily took their money and turned it into ads attacking incumbent Buddy Caldwell for being too cozy with … trial lawyers. Landry will be worth watching.
3. Sheriff Newell Normand — The king of Jefferson Parish helped defeat hometown rival John Young in the lieutenant governor primary, then played a key role in convincing Jefferson voters to support Edwards over Vitter in the senator’s home parish. Normand kept “Spygate” in the news and cut a TV ad blasting Vitter, thereby helping Edwards carry Jefferson with 51 percent of the vote in the runoff.
4. Congressman Cedric Richmond — The New Orleans Democrat threw his support behind several legislative candidates: Troy Carter in the red-hot West Bank Senate race; and former aide Jimmy Harris for state rep in the Ninth Ward. Both men won. He also helped St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom win her re-election bid and helped turn out black voters for Edwards.
5. Louisiana Democrats — The Dems picked up a state Senate seat, lost two House seats and won the governorship. That last one was mostly due to Edwards’ West Point credentials, his amazingly disciplined campaign and Vitter’s meltdown. After eight years of getting their asses kicked, Dems have just cause to celebrate … for now. Reality check: Edwards’ victory does not mean that a Dem can win the U.S. Senate race to succeed Vitter next year.
6. Louisiana’s Working Poor — Medicaid will soon be expanded in Louisiana, which means several hundred thousand working poor will get health coverage for themselves and their families. To Edwards’ credit, he never shied away from this issue even though it gave Vitter a dog whistle to tie Edwards to Barack Obama. Which brings us to …
7. Higher Education — Louisiana’s colleges and universities will finally get funded again, after eight years of Darwinian starvation.
8. Crossover GOP Lawmakers — Republican legislators faced tremendous pressure to endorse Vitter in the runoff, but those who dared to back Edwards will be first in line for choice committee assignments and access to the new governor.
9. The Louisiana GOP — Vitter’s loss was all his own, not the GOP’s. When Edwards and his supporters said, “It’s not about party, it’s about the candidate,” they were right. Republicans still hold six of seven statewide elective offices at the state level, both U.S. Senate seats, five of six congressional seats and solid majorities in the state House and Senate. Vitter’s announced retirement also increases the odds that his seat will remain in Republican hands after 2016, because the GOP has a deeper bench in Louisiana than does the Dem party.
10. Mayor Mitch Landrieu — The mayor backed several successful legislative candidates and played a major role in raising money for Edwards in the runoff. Rep. Walt Leger III becoming House Speaker also augurs well for the city. Which brings us to …
1. LABI — The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry got crushed in this year’s legislative session, and LABI’s eleventh-hour endorsement of Vitter proved to be too little, too late. Its only consolation was a sweep of state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education races. LABI prez Steve Waguespack, a former top aide to Jindal, faces major time in the penalty box for his repeated attacks against Edwards in the runoff.
2. Big Oil — Like LABI, many of Louisiana’s oil barons lined up behind Vitter, believing he would protect them from trial lawyers. Now they’ll have to come to the table to negotiate peace terms with their toughest watchdog yet — Gov. John Bel Edwards. The good news for the rest of us: Now, finally, there’s a solution in sight to the dilemma of paying for coastal restoration.
3. Bobby Jindal — Give the outgoing governor credit: He took one for the team by timing his withdrawal from the presidential race to completely drown out Vitter’s hysterical rants about Syrian refugees in the campaign’s final days. It was sweet payback, as Vitter timed his 2007 re-emergence after his prostitution scandal to overshadow Jindal’s announcement for governor. Otherwise, Jindal was toxic. History will not judge him kindly.
4. Race Baiters and Fear Mongers — Vitter didn’t just lose, he and his tactics were repudiated. Take the hint.
5. St. Tammany’s Old Guard — Sheriff Jack Strain’s defeat marked the official demise of St. Tammany Parish’s Old Guard amid a wave of anti-incumbent anger. Elsewhere, the courthouse crowd ruled.
That wraps up this election season. Enjoy the holidays!