Completing a longshot bid that ran counter to the conservative tide sweeping the Southern states, Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards was elected governor of Louisiana on Saturday, defeating his Republican rival, U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
Edwards was the top vote-getter in the state’s open primary, building a lead over Vitter that he never surrendered.
With 1,800 out of 3,945 precincts reporting, Edwards led Vitter 55 percent to 45 percent, prompting the Edwards campaign to declare victory late Saturday evening.
A jubilant crowd of Edwards supporters greeted news of the Democrat’s win at the venerable Monteleone Hotel in the New Orleans French Quarter as a brass band led an impromptu Second Line celebration through the packed ballroom.
Addressing the crowd, Edwards said, “I did not create this breeze of hope that’s blowing across our state, but I did catch it.” He reached out to supporters of his Republican opponents, pledging to be a governor “for all the people of Louisiana,” and congratulated voters for not giving in to the “deep cynicism about our politics and our future.”
E-mail messages to Vitter campaign spokesman Luke Bolar were not returned, but in his concession speech Saturday night, Vitter announced that he would not run for reelection to the Senate when his current term expires next year.
The race had narrowed substantially in recent days, with Vitter using concerns over plans to settle Syrian refugees in the state to hammer his Democratic opponent. Edwards struck back in ads saying that Vitter had missed several key hearings on the Syrian crisis while serving in the Senate.
For Vitter, the dust-up was a welcome chance to refocus a race that had largely dealt with his character and biography rather than his political positions. Edwards repeatedly contrasted his record as a West Point graduate and former officer with the 82nd Airborne Division to Vitter’s involvement in a 2007 Washington prostitution scandal. Edwards also sought to tie Vitter closely to Bobby Jindal, the state’s unpopular two-term Republican governor, claiming that a vote for Vitter would amount to a third term for Jindal.
Vitter countered with his own advertising barrage linking Edwards to President Obama, whose unpopularity in the state rivals Jindal’s. Vitter emphasized his record as a conservative opponent of the administration on issues such as the health care, immigration and law enforcement.
Vitter, who had largely avoided talking about the prostitution scandal in his successful 2010 Senate reelection bid, was forced to address the issue directly in ads featuring his wife and his teenage son attesting to his fitness as a husband and father.
Vitter, who was seen as a prohibitive favorite earlier in the year, was also hurt by a bruising primary run against two prominent Republican opponents. Edwards, by contrast, had the full backing of his party as the sole Democrat in the race. In Louisiana’s open primary system, Edwards finished first with 40 percent of the vote; Vitter came in second with 23 percent.
In the runoff, one of Vitter’s Republican opponents, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, crossed party lines to endorse Edwards. The other, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, declined to make any endorsement. Edwards, who comes from a family with a long history in law enforcement, also garnered the endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.
The success of Edwards’s run caught much of the state’s political establishment by surprise. Louisiana has not had a Democrat elected to statewide office since 2008. In 2014, three-term Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu was soundly beaten by Bill Cassidy, a relatively unknown Republican congressman.
From the start of his run, Edwards knew any chance of victory hinged on distinguishing himself from the prevailing image of Democrats among voters. In meetings with small groups in rural parishes, he touted his opposition to abortion and strong support for gun ownership. He had fellow members of West Point class speak about his character and values.
“We knew he had the best story to tell of anyone in the race,” said Eric LaFleur, a Democratic state senator from Ville Platte and an early Edwards supporter. “The only question was, would anyone be able to hear it or would it get drowned out?”
Karen Carter Petersen, chairman of the state Democratic Party, called Edwards an “amazing candidate” who connected with voters through his personal integrity. “He’s lived his values,” Petersen said, adding that the party’s decision to coalesce around Edwards as a candidate in March helped clear the way for his strong run. “We’ve worked to rebuild and rebrand the party from the bottom up,” she said, “and focus on those policies where we can all agree.”
In many ways, Edwards is a throwback to a previous generation of Southern Democrats, many of whom served in the military and touted traditional values. Through the efforts of the Democratic Leadership Council, many of them — including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Chuck Robb and Sam Nunn — went on to national success.