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La.’s sheriffs pivotal in electing John Bel Edwards as governor

30th November 2015   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards often voiced a dictum of Louisiana politics. In the Pelican State, the Governor is the King, and the Sheriffs are the Barons. As in the Middle Ages, if the King loses the support of the Barons, he loses his head.

One can ascribe Democrat John Bel Edwards’ triumph over Republican David Vitter on November 21, 2015 not to some “new politics” wave in Louisiana, but to some very OLD politics. The endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, and the very active campaigning of several individual sheriffs, inoculated Edwards against charges that he was too liberal.

While Jay Dardenne’s endorsement of John Bel Edwards may have started the process, La. sheriffs provided the final “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for these swing voters, allowing Republicans disgusted with David Vitter’s character lapses to cross party lines and support the Democrat. The Sheriffs’ support inoculated Edwards from the U.S. Senator’s “Obama-lite” attacks on his opponent, and stopped this GOP swing electorate from rushing home to the Republican fold in fear.

The proof lay in the results. Edwards ran 12 percentage points ahead of former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu in her losing 2014 re-election race. The Democratic State Rep. out-performed Landrieu in 63 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, even exceeding her near-unanimous showing in Orleans Parish last year.

John Bel Edwards received an estimated 37% of the white vote while carrying 39 parishes. Even in parishes he lost, the outspoken support of the local Sheriff narrowed the margins considerably, allowing Edwards to build up his majority of victory by 140,932 votes, or 56% to 44%.

David Vitter had counted upon a “Syria swing” in the final days. The Senator’s gubernatorial campaign charged that Edwards had an initial tepid response on Facebook to the impact of the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Louisiana. The sheriffs, however, had rushed to John Bel’s defense. As the polling service JMC Analytics noted, “There was some impact, but it didn’t much affect the election outcome: David Vitter received 41% of the early vote and 45% of the Election Day vote. The victorious Republican lieutenant governor candidate, on the other hand, received 55% of both the early and Election Day vote.”

Moreover, JMC continued, there was strong Black turnout. “While Blacks turned out heavily for both early and absentee voting (they made up 30% of the early vote), unofficial precinct data shows that they turned out three percentage points less than the white vote did on [November 21] voting (29% vs. 32%). In other words, blacks were an estimated 30% of yesterday’s electorate. Overall voter turnout was 40%, which was one percentage point above the primary turnout, and 23% of Louisianans voted early.”

“In conclusion,” noted JMC’s John Couvillon, “this election cycle showed that while Louisiana voters prefer conservative candidates, it does not make them irrevocably Republican regardless of the candidate, especially if the Democratic candidate “checks the correct conservative boxes.” Campaign managers in future election cycles would be wise to note this example.”

“The right Democrat can win if he or she pieces together the right coalitions and, of course, if you have a divided Republican Party, that also can help the Democrat win.” Left unmentioned by Couvillon is that Louisiana sheriffs had made active efforts on Edwards’ behalf in the parishes where this effect was most felt.

Reportedly, the Sheriffs Association had planned to sit this election out. John Bel Edwards may have been the brother, son, and grandson of La. sheriffs, yet with an incumbent GOP U.S. Senator who agreed with them on most issues as the prohibitive favorite, the organization seemingly not planned to get involved as a group.

Then, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand caught a private investigator taping his conversation at Royal Blend Coffee House in Old Metairie. Upon the PI’s apprehension, it was revealed that the Vitter Campaign employed his firm, and Pandora’s box opened.

A horrified group of Sheriffs swung into action. Less than 48 hours after the primary, at an emergency meeting, they endorsed Edwards. As the group’s president, Lincoln Parish Sheriff Mike Stone, stated, the Sheriffs felt Edwards “will enhance Louisiana’s image and show the entire country that Louisiana values honesty and integrity in government.”

Stone himself began to work actively on the State Rep.’s behalf, and results spoke for themselves in his home parish on November 21. The Cassidy-Landrieu contest in 2014 serves as the best control group for contrasting the gubernatorial results. The election results of a sitting senior Democratic Senator facing a GOP Congressman in his first statewide bid should mirror the Vitter-Edwards results. They do not, however.

On the power of incumbency alone, one would have expected John Bel Edwards to do far worse than Mary Landrieu. Instead, he out-performed her, especially in parishes where he had the active support of sheriffs, who had effectively sat out the U.S. Senate race.

In conservative Lincoln Parish, Cassidy beat Landrieu 7187 votes to 4874, 60% to 40%. In contrast, Edwards bested Vitter 53.1% to 46.9%. The Democrat won 4,985 votes to Vitter’s 4,402 in this GOP-leaning Parish.

Gary Bennett, the retired sheriff of West Carroll Parish, who had noted that the vote to endorse Edwards was “overwhelming,” also swung into action. In West Carroll in December 2014, Cassidy won 2,422 votes to Mary Landrieu’s 582, 81% to 19%. In contrast, Vitter won West Carroll, but by a far reduced margin, 64.7% to 35.3% or 1,560 to 821.

Mary Landrieu had won Assumption Parish, but only by the narrowest of margins, prevailing by just 88 votes. In contrast, after Assumption Parish Sheriff Mike Waguespack declared, “Integrity and character is what I see in John Bel Edwards,” Edwards beat Vitter 63.9 to 36.1 or 4,132 to 2,332.

One would expect a Democrat to do better in Orleans, but David Vitter grew up in Broadmoor, and has always had a strong core vote in the city of his birth. It made no difference when Marlin Gusman began to echo Edwards that Vitter was “Nixonian.”

Native New Orleans daughter Mary Landrieu beat Baton Rouge local Bill Cassidy with 84% of the vote on December 6, 2014. Yet, John Bel Edwards even improved on that result. He won 86.5% of the vote to Vitter’s 13.5%.

The worst flip was in Vitter’s home parish of Jefferson. Republican Sheriff Newell Norman ran commercials for John Bel Edwards saying his decision was based on the lack of character of David Vitter.

Mary Landrieu had won Jefferson in each of her previous elections until 2014. The Jeffersonians voted for her as if she were a native daughter of their parish, until last year when Cassidy carried Jefferson Parish, 53% to 47%.

Reacting, pundits at the time surmised that GOP-leaning Jefferson Parish would henceforth opt for a Republican in all future elections. Last week’s runoff saw Republican David Vitter lose to Edwards, 50.6% to 49.4%.

The reason why can be seen in Vitter’s old State Representative District in Old Metairie.

The area not only launched his career, it provided the base of his turnout to defeat Dave Treen to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Admittedly, in the primary, when Norman was supporting Jay Dardenne, and the Sheriffs Association was staying out of the race, Vitter still did badly in Old Metairie proportionately, but so did Edwards. In October, in the silk stocking precincts of 101 and 102, locations near Metairie Country Club, Vitter only earned 49% and 41% of the vote, respectively. He barely crossed the majority threshold along Northline’s precinct 103 with 53% of the vote.

Here is the important part, Dardenne and Angelle got 36% there, and Edwards just 11%, to demonstrate 103’s partisan leanings. In theory, the supporters of those other GOP candidates should have come home to Vitter, a known quality, in the runoff. They did not. Edwards had improved his totals to 28% in Precinct 103, from October to November. The Democrat went from 11% to 34% in 101, between the primary and the runoff, and jumped from 26% to a stunning 45% in 102.

In the primary, in precincts 90 and 91, around Codifer and Brockenbraugh Streets, Vitter earned 49% and 47% to Angelle and Dardenne’s collective 32% and 36%. In October, Edwards won just 16% in both. Last week however, the Democrat earned 31% in Precinct 90 and 36% in Precinct 91. At Norman’s urging, many Angelle and Dardenne voters voter for Edwards over Vitter, in the neighborhood who knew the Senator best.

Put another way, David Vitter generally earned in the runoff—as the only Republican on the ballot in Old Metairie—what John Young earned against fellow Republican Billy Nungesser in these precincts in the PRIMARY. Young, also an Old Metairian, earned 60% of the vote in his worst precinct there with another GOP candidate in the race, and over 75% in most of that neighborhood’s polling stations. Such was the impact when the Sheriff said not to vote for the native son.

This article originally published in the November 30, 2015 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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