NEW ORLEANS—Murray Starkel met John Bel Edwards on their very first day of cadet training at West Point in 1984, and the former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer remembers his first impression of his college roommate well.
“All the way back during our first summer of basic training, one of the exercises is you have to assault an objective. So you’ve got to low-crawl and go through rocks and dirt and trees and brush, and stay down low and try not to get shot, and work in buddy teams,” said Starkel, now an environmental consultant. “Well, every single time we’d get to the objective, the rest of us would all be pretty much dead because we’d been killed by the enemy. And there would be John Bel sitting on top of the bunker smiling slyly and eating from his MRE, and we’d all be wondering how the hell he got there.”
With the governor’s race two days away, Edwards, a previously little-known state representative from the rural town of Amite, is on the cusp of achieving what most Democrats assumed was impossible—winning the governorship in one of the most conservative states in the country. Even Democrat James Carville, the state’s most famous political pundit, told National Journal he still can’t believe that Democrats are favored to win.
It’s especially surprising given how poorly Democrats have performed in the state lately. Louisiana Democrats have been trounced in recent statewide elections, not winning a single one since 2008. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s landslide loss in last year’s midterms appeared to mark the end of Democrats’ hopes of competing in the state. And yet, polls show Edwards holding a commanding double-digit lead in his race against Sen. David Vitter.
“Other Democrats wanted to run, but they were reading the tea leaves of Mary Landrieu’s loss,” said Democratic former Gov. Kathleen Blanco. “It looked like a death knell for Louisiana.” But, Blanco added, “I thought that anybody in the runoff with David Vitter could beat him. I really did, from the very beginning.”
Edwards said he entered the race anticipating he would be facing Vitter in the runoff. “I not only realized it was a possibility, I thought it was the most probable outcome,” Edwards told National Journal. “I didn’t see anybody who was lining up to run who I had confidence in, as much as I had in myself, at least. And I decided to offer myself, realizing it was a difficult environment but ultimately believing in my ability to work the state and deliver a message the people of Louisiana would respond to, as they have.”
Edwards and a small but dedicated circle of friends, family, and advisers—including Blanco—saw a path to victory for him in a race against Vitter. That confidence dated back to February 2013, when Edwards first announced his intention to run. They thought Edwards’s military background (he served eight years as an Army Ranger), cultural conservatism (Edwards is an antiabortion Catholic and opposes same-sex marriage and gun control), and Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal all gave Democrats a unique opportunity in the race. And Edwards also boasted political experience before he ran, leading the Democratic caucus in the state House.
Bigger names like New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu took a pass on the race, assuming Vitter was unbeatable in such a conservative state. Some Louisiana Democrats complained to Blanco as recently as last month that they wished the party hadn’t fielded a candidate at all, believing having one of their own in a runoff would only hand Vitter a victory. “I had to challenge them. I had to tell them to back off,” said Blanco.
Edwards also faced other roadblocks. For much of the campaign, there were rumors circulating that Republicans who opposed Vitter were trying to recruit an African-American Democrat into the race to split the Democratic vote and boost one of two other Republicans, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle or Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, into the runoff against Vitter. There was buzz about former Joint Task Force Katrina commander Russel Honoré entering the race at the last minute.
In October, one Democratic operative tracking the race described Edwards as merely a “placeholder candidate” who would be convenient to have around in case Vitter collapsed. Edwards’s core supporters contend he’s been much more than that.
“We had internal polling two years ago that showed exactly what we see right now head-to-head with David Vitter. And it was a matter of overcoming every obstacle between there and here, and some of that was about making people believe it, and some of it was just like, the only way to make people believe it was to just go and do it,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, Edwards’s chief consultant.
Wray was the very first person to join the campaign, and was Edwards’s only official staff member up until this summer. Otherwise, Edwards’s wife, Donna, performed all the administrative duties of his campaign and his six siblings did the legwork—regularly hauling a float with a giant bell on it to parades and festivals across the state to gin up support.
But despite the low-budget operation, Edwards had long planned to use his military background to brand himself as a moderate Democrat who had the standing to go after Vitter’s past scandal. Starkel, Edwards’s college roommate, said a group of West Point classmates gathered at Edwards’s house in Amite at the start of the year to strategize how to make sure people knew about his personal story—and persuade veterans to support his campaign.
Edwards effectively weaved in his military background to counteract Vitter’s attacks casting him as weak on public safety. And when his campaign went on television attacking Vitter over the prostitution scandal, Edwards cited the West Point honor code to draw a sharp contrast with the senator. He also deliberately avoided publicly embracing Mayor Landrieu, the highest-profile Democrat in the state, intent on cultivating an independent, moderate image.
The Landrieus, Wray said, "didn’t want to add to this false narrative that John Bel is some kind of national, liberal candidate. They were cautious not to poison the well, or give anybody the opportunity to use them as evidence that John Bel is somebody that he’s not.”
To be sure, Edwards also benefited from good luck. The free-for-all nature of the primary, in which candidates from all parties compete, allowed Edwards to escape scrutiny as Vitter’s GOP opponents aggressively attacked him. Both Angelle and Dardenne hit the senator over the prostitution scandal, making it easier for Edwards to continue the attacks once he secured a spot in the runoff.
But most Democrats didn’t view Edwards as the favorite until the primary, in which Vitter won just 23 percent of the vote, and subsequent polls showing him with a substantial lead in the runoff. Carville said he hadn’t closely followed developments until recently, but was motivated to pitch in for Edwards after hearing all the buzz. Like most Democrats all along, Carville still views the race with a degree of skepticism.
“We’re going to see what the Democrats—in almost perfect laboratory conditions—what they can do,” Carville said.
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