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Louisiana 2019: Welcome to the Jungle (Primary)


— Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) defied the partisan lean of his state in 2015, but he will have to navigate an increasingly partisan electorate to win again. He’ll need Republican support, but he also must energize black voters.

— Louisiana’s unique jungle primary has shaped the contours of state elections for nearly 50 years and will be a key feature of the 2019 election.

— Regionalism has always been salient in Louisiana politics, and it should be a decisive factor in which Republican candidate makes a potential runoff with Edwards: Rep. Ralph Abraham (R, LA-5) or businessman Eddie Rispone (R).

Previewing Saturday’s Bayou battle

On the first day of class, students at Louisiana State University walked into Prof. Wayne Parent’s Louisiana Government course to kick off the spring 2014 semester. As the lecture progressed, Parent, a longtime authority on state elections, summed up his observations: “One thing I hope you’ll learn from this class is that Louisiana politics is volatile.” Sure enough, that November, the state would topple its senior senator, then go on to elevate a lowly state legislator to the governor’s mansion the next year. When the lecture turned to that 2015 gubernatorial race, this legislator came up, who was then the only announced Democratic candidate. “I hear this guy John Bel Edwards is supposed to have a hell of a background,” Parent said, “but I think the state may just be too red…”

Then state-Rep. John Bel Edwards fit his conservative state about as well as any Democrat could: a pro-life, pro-gun moderate whose training at West Point became a recurring theme of his campaign. The early frontrunner, Sen. David Vitter (R), was increasingly weighed down by incumbent GOP Gov. Bobby Jindal’s horrid image in the state, as well as a personal scandal that he could never fully put to rest. In a November 2015 runoff, Edwards’ unique profile as a candidate, coupled with the GOP’s inability to unite behind Vitter, culminated in a 56%-44% win for the Democrat; this made Louisiana the only state in the Deep South to gain a Democratic governor during President Obama’s tenure.

Long dismissed as an “accidental governor” by some, Edwards is now tasked with showing that his earlier win wasn’t simply a product of favorable circumstances. Edwards inherited a budget shortfall from Jindal; he’s generally kept good, but not great, approval ratings while putting the state’s finances in order. Still, statewide races are taking on an increasingly federal timbre, which gives the GOP an opening.

The Louisiana electorate owes much of its volatile character to its political history. Often grouped in with the rest of the south, Louisiana is, culturally, a conglomeration of three states.

One of the busiest ports in the country, New Orleans is situated at the mouth of the Mississippi River; it saw a significant influx of immigrants from places like Ireland, Italy, and Germany during the nineteenth century. The result was an urban political culture similar to that of New York City.

In the southwest, the bayous of Acadiana were settled by Francophone expats from Canada, who fled British rule in the eighteenth century. Despite their distinct lineages, and different styles of gumbo, metro New Orleans and Cajun country are bound by the Catholic tradition.

Northern Louisiana was settled by Protestants and has more in common with Mississippi than either southern region of the state. Additionally, African Americans make up roughly 1/3 of the state’s population; they’re dispersed throughout the three regions. Decades of factionalism have fostered a sense of distrust in the state’s body politic. As a result, successful statewide candidates have had to build broad coalitions.

During the twenties, an upstart politician from Winn Parish, Huey P. Long, was running for governor. A Protestant, Long needed Cajun votes. So while sweeping through Acadiana, Long recalled that as a boy, “I would get up at six o’clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would hitch our old horse up to the buggy and I would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o’clock I would hitch the old horse up again, and I would take my Baptist grandparents to church.”

After a campaign event, a surprised colleague approached him. “I didn’t know you had Catholic grandparents.”

Long replied, “Don’t be a damn fool. We didn’t even own a horse.”

T. Harry Williams leads his biography of Long with this anecdote. “The story seems too good to be true — but people who should know swear that it is true,” he wrote.

Looking to Saturday’s primary, bridging the north-south divide has been a high priority for Rep. Ralph Abraham (R, LA-5). A family doctor and veterinarian by training, Abraham hails from the Monroe area and has represented the northeastern part of the state since 2015 in Congress. While the regional rift isn’t as stark today — nationalization has generated a more partisan-driven divide — most of the state’s population lives south of his 5th District.

In the 2015 gubernatorial primary, then-Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle’s (R) Cajun base nearly put him in the runoff. He carried the southwestern 3rd District (see Map 1). Acadiana has no such “favorite son” this time. The Abraham campaign has moved to fill this void; Rep. Clay Higgins (R, LA-3) has stumped for his northern colleague. The last time Louisiana elected a governor from the northeast was in 1968; ironically, if Abraham can replicate that feat five decades later, it will likely be with Cajun help.

Map 1: 2015 gubernatorial primary by congressional district

While Abraham may make inroads outside his base region, his fundraising has been subpar throughout the campaign. This is problematic, considering his chief GOP rival, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, has poured over $11 million of his own dollars into the race. A Republican donor with a tone reminiscent of the late Ross Perot, Rispone made millions in the construction industry. According to our sources, Rispone’s business resume may be better suited for Republicans in suburban Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as opposed to Abraham’s background as a country doctor.

Back to 2002

From a regional perspective, the 2002 Senate race may offer the best parallels to the current gubernatorial contest. That year, first-term Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) was seeking a second term. Her main opposition was from state Commissioner of Elections Suzanne Haik Terrell (R) and Rep. John Cooksey (R, LA-5) — although there were other candidates, including Tony Perkins (R), then a state legislator and now the president of the Family Research Council, a Christian conservative organization.

To retain crossover appeal in her red-trending state, Landrieu emphasized her work with then-President George W. Bush. While keeping a modicum of GOP support was important, this strategy also generated rumblings of neglect from black voters — the core Democratic constituency in the state. Edwards has likewise played up his relationship with President Trump; perhaps not coincidentally, the early vote totals suggest a less-than engaged black electorate.

On primary day, Landrieu took 46% and was forced into a runoff, which she eventually won 52%-48% (see Map 2). Edwards, likewise, has generally been polling around 45%. Cooksey, who represented the rural 5th district in north Louisiana, couldn’t find much support outside north Louisiana and was squeezed out of the runoff. Cooksey’s candidacy is a good cautionary example for Abraham, who currently holds the same seat.

Map 2: 2002 Louisiana Senate primary

Terrell, who had the backing of national Republicans, finished ahead of Cooksey in almost every southern parish, and outpolled him in the Shreveport metro. Polling from Republican pollster and state analyst John Couvillon shows that a similar scenario could take shape on Saturday. Couvillon puts Rispone ahead of Abraham 31% to 10% in the Baton Rouge area, and gives Rispone smaller leads in other southern metros.

The Law of the Jungle: A History

Abraham and Rispone have been battling for second place in recent polls — although the momentum seems to be with Rispone — and most public pollsters seem to agree that Edwards will fall short of 50% on Saturday. This would necessitate a Nov. 16 runoff under Louisiana’s jungle primary system. The jungle primary has been a feature of the state’s political landscape for nearly 50 years and has set the stage for some of its most memorable elections.

Until the 1970s, Louisiana used a more common partisan primary system. In his first term, Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards (no relation to the current governor) proposed the jungle primary system. He framed it as a fiscally responsible move, with its potential to resolve elections after just one round of balloting, while also pitching it as a means to expand voter choice — voters would be free to select any candidate, regardless of party. A simpler explanation, though, could be found in the partisan realities of the day.

Louisiana was still overwhelmingly Democratic in the 1970s and major political conflicts fell on factional lines. Famously, in the decades following The Kingfish’s death in 1935, state politics was a tug-of-war between his loyal Longites and the anti-Long Democrats. Still, as with most formerly Confederate states, the Party of Lincoln was increasingly fielding local candidates. According to his biography, Edwards thought it was unfair that Republican candidates, who rarely faced intraparty competition, would get a “clean shot” in general elections. Democrats, by contrast, would often endure contentious and costly primaries. Edwards’ own electoral history bore this out.

An ambitious congressman from Acadiana at the time, Edwards faced a daunting three-stage election to become governor in 1972 (see Map 3). In a 17-way Democratic primary, Edwards finished first with 24%. In the ensuing Democratic runoff, his statewide career was nearly halted in its infancy by Shreveport legislator J. Bennett Johnston, who held Edwards to just 50.2%; months later, Johnston was elected to the Senate. David Treen (R) carried the banner for a nascent GOP in the general election and took 43%, the best showing for a Republican since Reconstruction.

Map 3: Stages of 1972 Louisiana gubernatorial race

Edwards’ plan found support with legislators, many of whom were entrenched in their seats and had ubiquitous name recognition in their districts. Sure enough, Edwards was reelected with 62% in 1975 after one round of voting — a break from the gauntlet he ran in 1972.

Danger signs for Edwards in the early vote

While the younger Edwards seemed poised to win outright at various points during the campaign, given the nature of his opposition, history is against him. Of the 11 gubernatorial races that have taken place since the advent of the jungle primary, five have resulted in candidates winning outright. Table 1 shows the years gubernatorial candidates have won outright, along with the percentage margin and margin over the next finisher. All but one of the five scenarios saw the winner clear 60%; Bobby Jindal took 54% in 2007, but still finished 36% ahead of the next candidate. Notably, Edwin Edwards was the last Democrat to win without a runoff, back in 1983 — a less polarized time. Given Louisiana’s red hue, it always seemed unlikely that Edwards would win in such a cakewalk in 2019.

Table 1: Louisiana governors who won outright

If past results didn’t suggest a single-round Democratic victory on Saturday, future trends certainly don’t if the early vote in any indicator. Early voting isn’t as popular in Louisiana as it is in other states, but roughly 20% of the state electorate typically casts a ballot before Election Day.

Over the week-long period of early voting that concluded last Saturday, over 374,000 votes were cast. This was the highest tally ever for a non-presidential election (Table 2), according to John Couvillon (the figures listed are as of Sunday, so there are a small number of absentee voters that have trickled in since then that are not included in the 2019 tally).

Table 2: Recent Louisiana early vote tallies

The early vote is concerning for Democrats on three fronts.

First, while it’s rare that Republicans outvote Democrats in early voting in Louisiana, they came close last week, holding Democrats to just a 1.9% turnout advantage. Partisan composition isn’t a perfect electoral indicator in Louisiana, as many older conservatives are still registered with the Party of Jackson, but such a small advantage is hardly encouraging for Democrats. Compared to the 2015 gubernatorial primary, where Democrats had a more comfortable 51-36 lead, the GOP gained in nearly every parish (Map 4). The Edwards campaign maintains that Republicans will split their ballots for him, a theme of one his closing ads, but the extent to which GOP partisans will ultimately jump ship is unclear.

Map 4: Partisan composition of the Louisiana early vote

A second danger sign for Edwards is that early returns suggest a lack of enthusiasm with black voters. Conventional wisdom is that for Democrats to win in Louisiana, they need 30% of the white vote coupled with an electorate that’s as close as possible to 30% black; the latter part of that equation is typically easier to achieve. In 2015, Edwards had a 28% black electorate in the primary; that inched up to 30% in the runoff. In 2014, Landrieu generated similarly healthy numbers with blacks, but lost because she faced an implacable white electorate. Ironically, Edwards is still competitive with whites — Couvillon pegs him at 31% — but if blacks continue to make up just 25% of the vote, as they did in the early vote, the governor will be in a perilous position.

Finally, one of the hallmarks of Edwards’ 2015 runoff victory was low turnout. He won with 647,000 votes, which was good for 56% of the vote. In the last competitive gubernatorial runoff, 2003, the late Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) earned 731,000 votes but just 52% of the vote. With higher turnout, states tend to behave more like they would in a presidential election; in Louisiana, this movement would favor Republicans. The robust early turnout numbers could well be a cannibalization of the Election Day vote, but at the very least, they suggest an engaged Republican base.

Right on cue, as he’s done with many elections during his time in office, President Trump recently weighed in on the Louisiana race. The president took to Twitter over the weekend to announce a pre-primary rally intended to hold Edwards under 50%.

If Trump ultimately torpedoes Edwards’ reelection prospects, it wouldn’t be the first time presidents have influenced state dynamics. Though he eventually rose to become U.S. House majority leader, the late Rep. Hale Boggs (D, LA-2) was cut out of the Democratic gubernatorial runoff in 1952. Boggs’ biggest liability was his association with a deeply unpopular Harry Truman. Forty years later, ahead of the 1991 gubernatorial election, the George H.W. Bush White House was credited with enticing then-Democratic Gov. Buddy Roemer to switch parties. Ironically, Bush would ultimately have to back a Democrat that year anyway. Roemer finished third in the primary; in the famous runoff, dubbed “the Lizard versus the Wizard,” Edwin Edwards once again won the governorship by defeating former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Edwards would later serve a prison sentence for corruption.

All things considered, we’ll keep our rating for Louisiana at Leans Democratic for now in advance of Saturday’s jungle primary. An outright Edwards win is seemingly less likely, but soft Republicans could conceivably save him; even a 48%-49% finish on Saturday would justify this rating. If Edwards is closer to 45%, though, the race may be more like a Toss-up.