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Saturday, November 21, 2015

John Bel Edwards triumphs over David Vitter in Louisiana governor's race

Posted By on Sat, Nov 21, 2015 at 9:28 PM

click to enlarge The cake at governor-elect John Bel Edwards' election night party.
  • The cake at governor-elect John Bel Edwards' election night party.

In a twist of Louisiana political fate few could have foreseen a year ago, Democrat and State Rep. John Bel Edwards was elected the state’s 56th governor tonight. He defeated U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, who has held state or national office since 1992.

In his victory speech, Edwards thanked family and supporters who "believed we could confound the conventional wisdom that this victory just couldn't happen." He said his victory showed people have "chosen hope ... over negativity, over the distrust of others.

"I didn't create that breeze of hope," he said. "but I caught it."

Edwards had declared his intention to run for the state’s top job in February 2013, when it seemed likely that increasingly-red Louisiana would put a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion. When Vitter declared, he immediately became the race’s frontrunner with what seemed a clear path to victory — but as his nearly 20-year-old prostitution scandal came into play again and many Republican officials endorsed Edwards, the wheels came off the Vitter campaign.

Shortly after 9 p.m., with 54 percent of the vote counted and Edwards holding a 55-45 percent lead, WWL-TV called the race.The packed crowd in the Hotel Monteleone ballroom surged forward, screaming, and a brass band entered playing "When the Saints Go Marching In."

"Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat John Bel?" the crowd chanted. As Vitter's concession speech played on TVs in the room, the chant turned nastier: "Nah nah nah nah! Hey-ey-ey! Goodbye!"

Both Vitter and Edwards chose to have their election night parties in the New Orleans metro area. Edwards was at the Monteleone (where another famous political Edwards, Gov. Edwin Edwards, married his wife Trina after he got out of prison; Trina tweeted from upstairs during the wait for the Edwards/Vitter results). Vitter’s party was in Jefferson Parish at the Hilton New Orleans Airport Hotel.

An hour before the polls closed, volunteers and supporters at the Edwards event were cautiously optimistic. (The baked goods were very optimistic; a large sheet cake in the back proclaimed “GOVERNOR JOHN BEL EDWARDS.”) Volunteers handed out Mardi Gras beads, yellow second-line hankies and stickers for the candidate.

Before the polls closed, no one in the room seemed to take the outcome for granted.

Half an hour before polls closed, State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, head of the state Democratic Party, said reports of low turnout in heavily Democratic East Baton Rouge Parish “were turning around.” State Rep. Walt Leger said, “I always thought this race would come down to 51-49 [percent], or 52-48. But I think we’re going to win.”

Former state Rep. Charlie Melancon, who lost to Vitter in a bitterly contested race for U.S. Senate in 2010, came in with his wife Peachy. He was beaming. Melancon estimated the final vote to be 53-47 percent in Edwards’ favor, and said he thought early voting would tell the tale. Asked if the prospect of another Vitter victory was still personal, he smiled and said, “Oh, yeah.”

The state’s No. 2 job was called by political observers by 8:25 p.m.: projections showed former Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser beating Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden handily. In the race for Attorney General, Jeff Landry ousted incumbent Buddy Caldwell. Both are Republicans.

The state Democratic party wasn’t strong enough even to nominate a candidate against Gov. Bobby JIndal in 2011, but Edwards announced his intention to run in February 2013. He had little name recognition in the southern half of the state, whereas Vitter was well-known, had millions in his war chest and seemed to have moved past his prostitution scandal when he was reelected to the Senate in 2010.

But several things complicated the governor's race. Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, both Republicans, also joined the race, splitting off enough of the GOP vote to keep Vitter from claiming victory in the primary. There also was little comity between Vitter and the other candidates; Dardenne, Angelle and Edwards made it clear they respected one another.

When he lost on primary night, Dardenne made a point of telling TV cameras he wished luck to one of the remaining candidates — a slap at Vitter. Not long after, he created waves in the state Republican party when he crossed party lines to officially endorse Edwards. Angelle, meanwhile, endorsed no one.

The prostitution scandal came back to life when American Zombie investigative blogger Jason Brad Berry posted video interviews he’d conducted with Wendy Ellis, the former New Orleans prostitute who had claimed in 2007 she’d slept with Vitter. Ellis had a different story now: that she had become pregnant with Vitter’s child and he’d asked her to have an abortion. She offered no proof, but the issue came back into campaign play — particularly when Edwards put out an attack ad charging Vitter with choosing “prostitutes over patriots.”

Vitter attempted to rally with ads claiming Edwards wanted to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana, but in the end it wasn't enough. Shortly before 9:30 p.m., he took the stage to concede, adding that he would not seek a third term in the U.S. Senate in 2016.

And the political race went on.

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