What Democrats Can Learn from Louisiana (No, Really)

The election of Democrat John Bel Edwards as governor of Louisiana is one of the most significant but ignored progressive policy victories in years.


A version of this story ran in the April 2017 issue.

The last four years have been among the grimmest periods in the Democratic Party’s history. State parties in nearly every region have been decimated, Dems have almost no power in Congress, and the Midwestern states that once gave the party an edge in the Electoral College are now up for grabs.

Gov. John Bel Edwards delivers his inauguration address on the steps of the Capitol after being sworn in as the 56th governor of Louisiana on Jan 11, 2016.  Master Sgt. Toby Valadie/Louisiana National Guard website

But there have been a few notable victories. The most consequential was an off-year election in a red state, little noticed then and little mentioned now: the 2015 election of John Bel Edwards as Louisiana governor. The Pelican State’s politics are unique — that’s a euphemism — but Edwards’ election is still worth considering in light of the disappointingly one-dimensional debate taking place about the direction of the Democratic Party.

Should the party move left, or to the center? Politics isn’t reducible to such a simple metric. On the matter of guns and abortion, Edwards is far to the right of the national party. He’s as anti-abortion as many of his Republican counterparts, and he’s strongly supportive of gun rights. His biography (Catholic, former U.S. Army Ranger) fits that of a blue dog Democrat, a shrinking group that has fallen out of favor nationally.

But his election brought about one of the most significant but ignored progressive policy victories in years: He expanded Medicaid. With the stroke of a pen, Edwards brought one of the poorest states into the fold of the largest expansion of the welfare state since the 1960s, extending access to basic health care to almost 400,000 people.

No other state in the South, besides Arkansas, has done the same. He also ran his campaign on establishing a state minimum wage and reducing incarceration rates, in a state with an abiding love of prisons. He is an unapologetic friend to the teachers unions, in a state that has embraced charter schools and vouchers.

Edwards is by no means a lefty, but neither does he fit with the Ivy League, corporate-friendly Dems who dominate the party’s center. He’s not Bernie Sanders, but neither is he Cory Booker. He’s something else — someone whose biography and public profile is suited to the politics of Louisiana.

Before Edwards, Louisiana Democrats were at a historic low point. They completely lost control of state government in 2010, after which Governor Bobby Jindal ruined the state’s finances. In 2014, Mary Landrieu, the last Democratic senator from the Deep South, lost her seat. Columnist Michael Tomasky told Democrats it was time to “write off” the South and “forget about the whole fetid place,” in the same way some national Democrats now speak about the Midwest.

So when Republican Senator David Vitter ran for governor, he was at first thought to be a shoo-in, despite his high-profile involvement in the D.C. Madam scandal. The race pitted three Republicans against Edwards in Louisiana’s unusual “jungle primary” system. When Edwards and Vitter ended up in the runoff, Republicans defected to Edwards, because they respected him and found him broadly palatable. In polls, he has significant bipartisan approval.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump greets supporters at his Austin rally.  Patrick Michels

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, many Democrats want to rebuild the party at the local level. This is admirable and right. But many who strongly advocate this view have a very specific idea of what a Democrat should look like, and what positions they should hold.

If the goal is a truly national party, capable of achieving meaningful policy gains for a significant portion of the population, figures like Edwards have important roles to play.

Too often, Democratic candidates come from somewhere in the mushy “none of the above” camp. They might be technocrats, or they might just be people with impeccable résumés and a lot of money. These people sometimes win elections, but they’re limited in their ability to authentically appeal to citizens. Most candidates need a message beyond competence.

The GOP used to be the party of the big tent, but now it has a simpler platform: white nationalism. How much regional and ideological variation should the Democrats accept in order to fight it? That’s a difficult conversation for a party that has never been more geographically concentrated. But if Democrats are serious about fighting for the well-being of working people everywhere, it’s one that needs to happen.

This article appears in the April 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or become a member now to see our reporting before it’s published online.