Democrats in Republican-leaning Louisiana are trying to buck expectations for a third consecutive cycle in this year’s open gubernatorial race as term-limited Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) prepares to leave office.
A divided Republican field is raising Democrats’ hopes of clearing the all-party primary on Oct. 14 and making it to the November general election. But Democrats acknowledge they face several challenges to maintaining the governorship.
“I don’t think anyone thinks that it’s going to be an easy task,” said Richard Carbo, Edwards’s former deputy chief of staff and 2019 campaign manager. “[Y]ou just have the headwinds of national politics and the Republican leaning of the state that are working against you. But … the governor showed how to defy those odds[.]”
Edwards is the only statewide elected Democrat in Louisiana. According to Morning Consult polling toward the end of last year, 51 percent approved of Edwards’s job performance (40 percent disapproved).
Recent state Secretary of Transportation and Development Shawn Wilson entered the race last week, and Edwards endorsed him the next day.
The endorsement “is an indication that the Democrats are trying to rally around one candidate in order to hopefully, for them, secure a chance in the runoff round,” said Sean Cain, associate professor of political science at Loyola University New Orleans. One other Democrat, pastor Daniel Cole, is in the race.
Several Republicans are running. The Louisiana Republican Party endorsed Jeff Landry, the state’s attorney general, in November.
In January, party chairman Louis Gurvich attributed Edwards’s 2015 and 2019 wins to Republican division in those primaries. Gurvich said the party has united behind Landry and called on U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) not to run. Graves announced last week he won’t join the race after weighing a bid.
Two days later, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry president Stephen Waguespack, a Republican, announced his resignation and entered the race. Additional candidates have until Aug. 10 to join.
Waguespack previously served as chief of staff to former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Waguespack left the governor’s office in 2012.
Jindal is the state’s last Republican governor. He left office in 2016 and had an approval rating below 40 percent toward the end of his tenure.
John Couvillon, a pollster based in Louisiana, told The Hill last week that if Waguespack entered, he’d “be a formidable candidate” from the “business-emphasizing wing” of the party, with the ability to fundraise and make himself known. Couvillon typically works with Republicans and said he’s not involved in any of the gubernatorial campaigns.
Waguespack said on a recent radio show that his record stands out among candidates: “I understand how the inside of the governor’s office works, I understand the thoughts and hearts and dreams of the business community. … I have a proven record of conservative values, but bringing people together at the same time and working with everyone.”
Couvillon said Landry is in the conservative wing of the party, which Couvillon characterized as putting “an emphasis more on social issues, and/or taking more of a confrontational tone against Democrats.”
Landry recently pushed for a state law restricting what books minors can take out of public libraries. Among the positions discussed on his campaign website are his opposition to abortion and to mask and vaccine mandates in schools. A “Law and Order” section says that “incompetent mayors and ‘woke’ district attorneys are playing a dangerous game of ‘catch and release.’”
Cain discussed Landry’s record as a Tea Party Caucus member in the U.S. House, where he served from 2011 to 2013, and as attorney general, saying “he’s positioned himself as economically and socially conservative,” which to some degree “fits with the state’s generally more economically and socially conservative perspectives compared to perhaps the nation as a whole.” Cain also said other Republican candidates may try to “paint him as too extreme.”
The challenge for Republicans, Couvillon said, will be having an enthusiastic party base without “turning off more independent voters in the runoff.” A runoff election takes place if no candidate gets a majority in October. Couvillon said he expects Wilson and one of the Republicans to be in a runoff.
Thirty-nine percent of the state’s registered voters are Democrats, 34 percent are Republicans and 27 percent have other affiliations.
Wilson is emphasizing the theme of bringing people together, saying in a campaign ad, “Louisiana needs a governor who will build bridges, not burn them” – a statement that also alludes to his experience as transportation and development secretary.
Carbo said Wilson is respected on both sides of the aisle, pointing to his years in state government under both Democratic and Republican governors. Wilson is “not going to be this partisan, abrasive flamethrower that you’ll see from the candidates on the other side,” Carbo, who is close to Wilson and supports his bid but doesn’t have an official role in the campaign, told The Hill last week.
Cain said “the challenge for a Democrat is to make the case that the party and its agenda is still something that can appeal to Louisiana voters” and that Edwards’s endorsement could help Wilson there.
One area where Wilson departs from Edwards is abortion policy. Edwards, one of few anti-abortion-rights Democrats in elected office, signed a “heartbeat” bill into law in 2019. NOLA.com reported that Wilson personally opposes abortion but said, “It’s not the government’s right to tell a woman what to do with any medical procedure involving her body. They have a right to privacy for these decisions.”
Couvillon said Wilson faces the challenge of replicating Edwards’s coalition, which included both cutting into the Republican vote in rural parishes and doing very well in larger parishes, where Edwards “was able to far outperform what Democrats typically get.”
Political analysts attributed Edwards’s 2019 reelection in part to significant support from Black voters. Thirty-one percent of registered voters in the state are Black, according to recent data from the Louisiana Secretary of State office.
Wilson would be the first Black statewide elected official since Reconstruction if he won. Cain said Wilson’s prospects are complicated by “the traditional racial politics of a state in the Deep South” and that Wilson needs to appeal “across party lines, but that also means appealing across racial boundaries, which is not impossible, but a major challenge.”
Sixty-one percent of registered Democrats are Black, whereas white voters make up 94 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of those otherwise affiliated.
NOLA.com reported Wilson’s comments on this topic: “We in this state have a long sordid history with race. It is not lost on me[.] … But I’m not running to be the Black governor. I’m running to be the governor. I want to be the best governor ever.”
While the state has favored Republicans for president since 2000, its gubernatorial election results have been more mixed. In 2019, Edwards won reelection by around 3 percentage points. Former President Trump won the last two presidential elections in the state by nearly 20 percentage points.
Louisiana’s is one of three gubernatorial races in 2023.