Louisiana race: Can Republicans score an upset victory?

In the Louisiana governor's race, Republican David Vitter has narrowed a very wide gap. Will it be enough to defeat John Bel Edwards?

(Patrick Dennis/The Advocate via AP)
Louisiana Gubernatorial candidates Sen. David Vitter, left, and Rep. John Bel Edwards, right, attend a gubernatorial debate in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.

Not long ago, Democrat John Bel Edwards had Republican David Vitter firmly on the ropes in the Louisiana governor’s election. But these days, never count a Republican out in the South.

Since the Paris attacks, Mr. Vitter has managed to focus the election away from his own involvement in a 2007 D.C. prostitution scandal to fears about Syrian refugees in the US. In so doing, Vitter has gained back at least some of the ground he'll need for victory. The election in Louisiana is Saturday.

“A few weeks ago, most everyone expected Edwards would pull off the upset,” writes National Public Radio’s Jessica Taylor. “But now it wouldn't be as much of a surprise if Vitter does escape and win the race.”

As in most parts of the South, Democrats in Louisiana have lost almost all statewide elections since Barack Obama’s election.

One reason: From Kentucky to now in Louisiana, Republicans have been able to exploit a deep – and, some allege, racially tinged –dislike of President Obama and his policies, including the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the Democrat-led expansion of subsidized health insurance.

Up to this point, the election narrative in Louisiana had been that after defeats in Kentucky in November and Georgia last year, a Democrat, albeit an almost extinct variety called a Blue Dog, had a real shot at breaking up the Republicans’ red state monopoly. After last Tuesday’s candidates' debate, Mr. Edwards lead went up by two percentage points in the polls, to a 22-point margin.

“A larger question looms,” writes Jason Berry in the Daily Beast: “If the margin holds, does the Edwards surge signal a sputtering of the Republican Southern strategy that exploits racial division by demonizing President Obama?” 

But as it now appears the margin has narrowed, the reasons underscore perhaps less race but the profound emotions swirling around America’s role in the Syrian refugee crisis, especially after at least one terrorist was able to attack Paris last Friday after joining a phalanx of refugees from the brutal Syrian civil war.

Some of the attackers, it turns out, had joined the refugee stream to cross into France, prompting more than 30 US governors to demand that Syrians stay out of their states. After a false report surfaced that a male Syrian refugee had gone missing in Louisiana, the Vitter campaign began bombarding voters with robocalls warning that “hordes of Syrians would soon be invading the United States, thanks to Obama,” Tyler Bridges reports in the Washington Post. (Obama has ordered that the US quadruple the number of Syrian refugees - up to 10,000 - it resettles stateside in 2016.) As a result for the false report and robocalls, Edwards was forced to change his messaging on refugees mid-stream, saying he, too, would like to see a “pause” in resettlement.

In what could be constructive to Democrats, Edwards has soared to this point at least partly because of his own strengths, his family having helped settle the state before Andrew Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans in 1812. He has eased conservative voters by being “pro-life and pro-gun” and by hailing the military. But he also embodies Christian principles, he says, when looking at government’s role in helping those struggling to succeed in the Pelican State.

Still, Edwards' appeals to populist heartland sentiment – over coastal elitism – may be difficult for Democrats to achieve more broadly.  After all, just this week, 58 percent of Americans , including 40 percent of Democrats, told Reuters/Ipsos pollsters they no longer “identify with what the country has become.” 

Those sentiments attach to both cultural and economic phenomena, and many attach their outlook to the Obama presidency.

The national focus on legalizing gay marriage – the trend by states to legalize marijuana – run counter to the weight of public opinion in many corners of the country. And the white working class continues to struggle with depressed wages and joblessness in the Obama economy. A recent survey found that non-college educated white Americans, many of them in the South, had seen their middle-age mortality rise and life expectancy decrease since 1999.

Such concerns were part of the narrative in the Kentucky gubernatorial election earlier this month, where Republican Matt Bevin beat Democrat Jack Conway by nine points, becoming only the second Republican governor of the Blue Grass State in 40 years.

Critically, Mr. Bevin wooed coal communities in the eastern Kentucky hills angered by the Obama White House’s energy policy.

In Louisiana, it appears the test is no longer whether a strong Blue Dog Democrat can beat a scandal-plagued Republican in the Deep South, but how flawed a candidate can be and still win at the state level by invoking Obama and his policies.

A poll released Friday showed that Vitter had closed the race, in part by hitting Edwards on the refugee question. "The race has tightened substantially," pollster John Couvillon writes, but "the question is whether that will make a difference" given that nearly a quarter million votes were cast as absentees before Friday's attack in Paris.

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