By Hastings Wyman –
It is not too difficult to be a Republican governor in a Red State in the South these days. President Trump may get raked over the coals in the national media – much of it due to his own tweets – but his base, especially in Dixie, is sticking with him. So Southern Republican governors can follow Trump’s lead and not get in too much trouble.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, however, is a Democrat in the very Red State of Louisiana, which Trump carried by 58% to Hillary Clinton’s 38%. Edwards was elected in 2015 after an extremely bitter primary battle on the Republican side. He was also aided by his reputation as a somewhat conservative lawmaker and had a positive reputation among many voters who normally vote Republican.
He also won by promising not to raise taxes. Once he got in office, however, he was faced a with $1 billion deficit. He contends he was unaware of the extent of the problems with state finances until he took office. In any case, he’s finding that Republican lawmakers aren’t too anxious to help him solve the problem with the necessary – but always unpopular – tax hikes.
Knowledgeable observers in the Pelican State have differing view on Edwards’ performance as governor, though all agree that he is still popular with most voters.
“He’s been doing very well,” says Democratic political consultant Trey Ourso. “Obviously he inherited a huge mess from the Jindal Administration… There’s a small group of Republicans in the legislature who try to obstruct him.” In addition to dealing with last year’s floods in March and August, “His biggest achievement has been Medicaid expansion; more than 400,000 have signed up.”
Another plus for Edwards is that “He’s here on the job working on these problems,” says Ourso. “Jindal traveled a lot, on his or other agendas. Edwards has been going from one corner of the state to the other.”
A pro-business lobbyist, however, attributes Edwards’ difficulty with the legislature on the governor himself. “He promised not to raise taxes, but has tried to raise millions.” And despite Edwards’ criticism of Jindal, “he hasn’t been successful in raising taxes either… He has a real lack of leadership skills” as well as “one of the poorest staffs on policy.”
Bernie Pinsonat of Baton Rouge-based Southern Media & Opinion Research says that in Edwards’ first year in office, he got good polling numbers, in part because he was up-front in dealing with bad storms and extensive flooding, which kept him on television. In August, 2016, after the bigger storm, his approval rating rose to 63%. In October, it was still 60%. In the latest survey by Pinsonat’s firm, in May 2017, Edward’s approval rating was 54% positive, 42% negative. Among whites, his rating was 44% positive to 53% negative; among blacks, it was 90% positive. Pinsonat attributes Edwards’ decline from last year’s highs to the change in what’s on the voters’ minds. “He’s now caught up with what Jindal was caught up in, passing budgets and raising taxes… The public is tired of these deficit battles. They’ve been going on for nine years.”
Nevertheless, overall, Edwards is still in positive territory, this for a Democratic governor in a very Republican state. And he’s got some major allies in Louisiana, including, says one observer, “the plaintiff’s bar, nursing homes, rehab facilities, doctors, engineering firms who want to help rebuild the coast, and road builders… The plaintiff’s bar got $100 million with the BP settlement, which is a major source of money to finance a campaign.”
Moreover, much of the business community, dependent on state government contracts, supports him.
While all of this adds up, at this early stage, to a positive 2019 reelection outlook for Edwards, Pinsonat has another view. Edwards is “not strong enough to get reelected by himself. But Republicans are certainly capable of reelecting him by infighting,” like they elected him in 2015. Stay tuned.