Out of the Jungle, A New Electorate Emerges

PROLOGUE: CHARTS, GRAPHS, AND STATISTICS

For more than a year, both Sue Lincoln and I have relentlessly researched and written about the upcoming election, which, in only two days, will determine the fate of the state of Louisiana for the next four years. We’ve invested hundreds and hundreds of hours working to bring our readers original stories and exclusive reports about this election and about the men seeking to serve as the next governor of state of Louisiana.

Although we will undoubtedly publish additional reports about the election, I am pleased to provide one final election-related report before the lights are turned on and the voting machines are plugged in at your local precinct.

As things now stand, the election appears incredibly close. We may be looking at Mary Landrieu-level “landslides,” which means that for those of you making the journey into Baton Rouge in order to attend either Eddie Rispone’s or John Bel Edwards’ election night parties, it may be wise to bring a pillow and blanket, just in case.

While the Bayou Brief decided last year to no longer endorse candidates for office, I am personally compelled to share my thoughts, my concerns, and my hopes about the choices that now confront voters. Currently, incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is narrowly favored in every poll that has been conducted since the Jungle Primary, and today, J.Miles Coleman of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a division of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and one of the nation’s most reputable politician prognosticators, decided to shift the Louisiana governor’s race from a “Toss Up” to “Leans Democratic.”

They based their new outlook on a number of factors, but most importantly, they were convinced by the impressive surge in early voting turnout, particularly among African Americans and registered Democrats. Coleman created this map, which illustrates the increases in black turnout during the early voting period in the runoff compared to the jungle primary.

African Americans comprised approximately 26.5% of the primary electorate and 31.1% of the runoff early electorate. A 4.6% surge is a seismic shift. According to the Louisiana Secretary of State, African Americans represent 31.3% of the state’s registered voters, which means early voting turnout was nearly at parity.

Only six of Louisiana’s 64 parishes experienced a decrease in the share of black voters, all of which are sparsely populated. Source: J. Miles Coleman

In Louisiana, pollsters sometimes use race as a proxy for political party. There are a few reasons for this, and, of course, it is a gross oversimplification. While it is less true today than it was only a decade ago, Louisiana is still home to untold thousands who are registered Democrats but vote exclusively for Republicans; it’s both a vestige of party realignment and a consequence of a state GOP operation that only became professionalized in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Considering John Bel Edwards received 97% of African American voters during his 2015 election, it’s more than reasonable to assume those numbers will hold up this year as well, which means he will need the support of essentially one out of every three white voters in the state.

Michael Henderson, the Director of LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, cautions against reading too much into the early voting numbers, especially considering there have only been six other runoff elections featuring an incumbent in the current runoff system. Because of the small data set, you probably won’t want to take Henderson‘s findings to the bank quite yet, but they are nonetheless instructive.

For example, he finds that “(i)ncreases or decreases in the number of early votes cast (in the runoff versus the primary) precede the same direction of change in overall turnout, but the magnitude of this change remains uncertain.” In other words, yes, we can expect a bigger turnout on Saturday, but there is no way of predicting exactly how much bigger it will be.

For supporters of the incumbent governor, the most critical concern is that the surge in early voting, particularly among African Americans, somehow cannibalized votes they would have otherwise received on Election Day. Henderson explains that ”(c)hanges in the share of early votes cast by blacks (in the runoff versus the primary) also show up as similar changes in the share of total votes cast by blacks.”

He even includes a nifty chart to illustrate his point:

Source: Michael Henderson, Louisiana By The Numbers.

Importantly, he also finds that Democrats have traditionally performed better in runoffs. This is what I mean when I say a new electorate is emerging; it always does. Runoff elections are a wholly different animal, and as long as Edwards maintains the pace he seems to be on right now, he should be able to edge by in a squeaker.

Again, though, don’t uncork the champagne yet.

Now, setting aside the charts and graphs, there are a few things I will be looking for in particular when the results start trickling in on Saturday night.

There are three people who, while not on the ballot, can still command a tremendous amount of attention in the state, though all three are represent incredibly problematic- or at the very least tricky- issues for the Republican challenger in their own ways.

We begin with a man who has haunted Louisiana politics for more than 28 years, who crawled out of his cave yesterday to give a warm bear hug (through the magic of radio) to his fellow Republican.

PART ONE: THE GRAND WIZARD OF THE GUTTER

“Obviously, I’m a Republican,” said the man on the other end of line, “and I have a long history in the Republican Party. I was elected as a Republican. I served as a Republican here. I was a member of the Republican caucus.”

Yesterday, the Louisiana Radio Network interviewed one of the most well-known Louisiana Republican elected officials in state history. No, it wasn’t former Gov. Bobby Jindal or former Gov. Mike Foster, nor was it Sen. John Neely Kennedy or Sen. Bill Cassidy or even former Sen. David Vitter.

This particular Republican had only won a single election in his career, a seat in the Louisiana state House of Representatives. This was in 1989, and it proved to be the most well-known and controversial local election in the entire country. Both Presidents Reagan and H.W. Bush pleaded with the voters in the Jefferson Parish district to please, for the love of God, vote for the other Republican instead, John Treen, brother of the late Gov. David Treen.

But once David Duke had finally managed to win an elected office, everything suddenly, dramatically changed, and even today, the residue of David Duke’s brief but meteoritic rise in Louisiana politics still has yet to evaporate.

David Duke publicly announced his support of Eddie Rispone yesterday, a decision that was likely met with anger and frustration inside of the candidate’s home at the Country Club of Louisiana.

On the radio yesterday morning, Duke explained how his public perception in Louisiana was “very, very different” than how he perceives himself to be. His brand is toxic, a reminder of a chapter in our state’s history that many would prefer to overlook.

Except that he won’t go away.

When he ran for the U.S. Senate three years ago, the geniuses at Raycom media decided for some inane reason that Duke had earned a spot in the debate, which was held at Xavier University, an HBCU with a predominately African American student body. Not surprisingly, the debate quickly spiraled out of control, with Duke becoming increasingly hostile and angry.

And then, of course, he gleefully inserted himself whenever and however he could in order to promote the Presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump. Trump, at least initially, appeared flummoxed when asked about Duke’s support, pretending as if he had never known of the man. His ambivalence about the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan was taken as a wink to the ascendant alt-right movement.

“If you go back and look at my campaign policies, they were Republican policies,” Duke explained on the Louisiana Radio Network yesterday.

As loathsome as David Ernest Duke is and as much as he continues to haunt our politics, it is true that the issues and policies that animated his two major bids for statewide political office- the United States Senate in 1990 and, most memorably, the 1991 election for Louisiana governor- are many of the same currently being promoted by the current Republican candidate for governor, Edward Lee Rispone: A radical and draconian position on immigration, a desire to either eliminate or dramatically scale down entitlement programs, and a strong emphasis on reducing taxes. Duke is not oblivious to the similarities; he relishes them.

It is easy to forget, but when Duke ran for governor 28 years ago, he had cleaned up most of his act from his days peddling overt racism, altering his face through plastic surgery, trading his KKK sheets for a suit and tie, and proclaiming himself to be a “born-again Christian.”

Duke will be voting for Eddie Rispone, without any question, just as he had when he voted for Donald Trump three years prior.

Yesterday, when questioned about a recent ad featuring his name and encourage black voters to reject Eddie Rispone’s candidacy, Duke was upfront. “Well, of course I’ve seen that ad,” he said.

The mailer was connected to New Orleans City Councilman Jay Banks. Absurdly, Republicans began whining that Banks’ mailer somehow meant John Bel Edwards was calling them “racists.” He was not; the ad was not under his control, though he did subsequently let Councilman Banks the mailer was creating an unnecessary distraction.

That said, make no mistake: Republicans and the Rispone camp were all too happy to feign outrage and moral indignation over the mailer’s reference to Duke. In the upside down world we are now all inhabiting, a politician can espouse nakedly bigoted beliefs and promote policies that are specifically aimed at stoking fears and hatred against marginalized communities, and if anyone has the audacity to point this out to them, that same politician can then brandish himself as the victim.

“White people” are the real “victims” here, Duke said yesterday, just as he has been since he was a freshman at LSU barking at his classmates from Free Speech Alley.

A final note on Duke.

Yes, he has faded into the spotlight, at least for now, but consider this: Three years ago, when he ran for the U.S. Senate, Duke still managed to garner 58,606 (or 3%) votes. If Congressman Charles Boustany, a Republican, had earned those votes instead, a prospect that- to be sure- was entirely unlikely, he would have finished in second place and secured a spot in the runoff against John Neely Kennedy.

He may be rightfully marginalized, but his paltry 3% statewide haul demonstrates that Duke continues to maintain a constituency.

In an election this close, it is possible Rispone, whether he likes it or not, may actually benefit meaningfully from Duke’s endorsement, though it is even more likely that Duke will serve as yet another reminder of what is at stake this year. Pro-tip: If David Duke supports your political campaign, you should think long and hard about what message you are communicating.

President Donald Trump and Eddie Rispone appear together on stage at a rally in Monroe, Louisiana.

PART TWO: THE DONALD

When Air Force One is wheels-down at around 7PM tonight at Barksdale Air Force Base, it will mark the third time in which the President of the United States has appeared in Louisiana to campaign for Eddie Rispone during the past five weeks. Of course, his first rally, held the day before the jungle primary, was billed as a Republican Unity event, which meant that Trump had the awkward task of encouraging attendees to support either Eddie Rispone or Ralph Abraham.

Now, with Abraham having been vanquished during the primary, Rispone no longer needs to share the stage with an opponent.

Trump is doing as much as someone like Trump knows how to do to bolster the Republican challenger. In addition to his three visits, Vice President Mike Pence showed up twice to lend his help, and Donald Trump, Jr. appeared once, at a rally in Lafayette.

These visits have placed Trump and his White House team in an unusual predicament.

On the one hand, they believe it is important for the president to brag about how well the state’s economy has been performing during the past three years, assigning him any and all credit he can for Louisiana’s decreased unemployment rate and its robust recovery in the aftermath of the disastrous tenure of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The problem, though, is that it directly contradicts the central thesis of the Rispone campaign, which made the strategic decision to cherry-pick a handful of rankings and economic surveys that present Louisiana as economically stagnant.

Typically, the White House dispatches one set of positive reports about Louisiana via social media, and once Trump strides on stage and leans into the microphone, he is full of doom and gloom about the state’s taxes and, of all things, the costs of auto insurance premiums. Without question, these are simply talking points provided to him by Republican operatives in Louisiana, because in both cases, Trump’s characterizations of these issues reflects a profoundly misinformed understanding.

With respect to taxes in Louisiana, a favorite go-to line among conservatives, Trump neglects to mention that Louisiana had faced a $2.1 billion budget deficit on the very first day of Edwards’ tenure, a much more dire situation than anyone had anticipated.

Louisiana had been saddled with the deficit as a direct consequence of Bobby Jindal’s reckless and cavalier approach toward performing his most fundamental job responsibility, surrendering himself to an absurd “no new taxes” pledge he had made with Grover Norquist, a fringe political activist who had found a degree of celebrity by railing against taxes with the self-righteous certainty of a bratty fourth grader.

Edwards would have preferred a much different set of solutions in order to ensure Louisiana never fell off the proverbial fiscal cliff, but conservative Republicans, who dominate the state House of Representatives, would only budge on one significant source of revenue.

There simply was no other workable solution; a temporary sales tax hike was the only thing on the table.

Republican legislators in both the Senate and the House passed a bill that raised an additional penny onto sales taxes, and the governor signed the bill narrowly in time to prevent catastrophe. Notably, his later plans to cut sales taxes by a half-penny were opposed by none other than Lane Grigsby, a man who rounds out the triumvirate.

Trump also has repeatedly echoed the same, spurious line about Louisiana’s high prices for car insurance, asserting the thoroughly debunked talking point that Louisiana’s rates are inflated because of trial lawyers. While he has yet to go into any specifics, the president is referencing state Rep. Kirk Talbot’s insidious attempt to market a gift basket comprised of items on the insurance industry’s wish list as a ”premium reduction” act. It was, in fact, not correlated in any statistically significant way to any potential reductions in premiums, and during committee hearings in this year’s legislative session, an insurance lobbyist testified that the bill was essentially an exercise in futility.

Moreover, the signature component of the proposed legislation- lowering the state’s jury threshold from $50,000 to $5,000- was estimated to actually cost taxpayers millions more a year in taxes, as it would result in a dramatic escalation in jury trials being requested in a system that is already at capacity.

There were several ways the state could have ensured a fairer, more competitive, and lower-priced auto insurance marketplace, but legislators, for the most part, disregarded those proposals; the bill that purported to be about the price of car insurance was actually about a set of half-baked tort reform proposals.

Rather than save consumers money, the bill sought to accomplish only one thing: To limit a person’s ability to access the judicial system.

Talbot’s legislation was killed in the Senate Judiciary-A committee, but considering the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry had declared it to be their “most important bill of the session,” perhaps it is not too surprising that it made its way onto Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

It hardly matters what issue Trump decides to prattle about. His rallies have never been about presenting voters with detailed policy proposals. It’s pure entertainment, a comedy routine that consists entirely of airing out his own grievances and insults against anyone and anything that earns his ire on television.

To an audience of his admirers, his rallies are an opportunity to not only be amused for a couple of hours but also to share in the performance of outrage against what they perceive to be an ever-encroaching threat on their way of life. His cruelty, crudeness, and utter contempt don’t repel his audiences; they’re the reason anyone shows up in the first place.

It still remains to be seen whether Trump’s decision to coddle his base here in Louisiana, a state he won by nearly 20 points, will have any real impact in the upcoming election. Eddie Rispone introduced himself to voters with a commercial in which he repeats Trump’s name more than his own. His television and digital ads emphasize his support of the border wall with Mexico, which is approximately 450 miles away from Louisiana. Nancy Pelosi earned a spot on one of his most recent mailers, as did AOC. And shortly after winning a spot in the runoff, he aired a pair of new ads staring Donald Trump instead of himself.

Put another way, he has latched onto Trump’s political brand so tightly that he has effectively ceded votes from anyone who may be conservative-leaning but who is repulsed by Trump’s behavior. Rispone hasn’t bothered to create any space between himself and the president, which is an enormous gamble, particularly considering Trump’s favorability in Louisiana, while still above 50%, has declined during the past three years. His “favorability gap” has shrunk by 16 points. There may be only slightly fewer people who like him today than did three years ago, but there are vastly more people who dislike him. Meanwhile, John Bel Edwards has a higher favorability and a lower unfavorability than both Trump and Rispone.

It is difficult to imagine Trump motivates a substantial enough number of voters in Louisiana who otherwise were not going to support Rispone. Suffice it to say, if you’re headed to the Trump rally tonight in Bossier City, you aren’t undecided, and you’re not suffering through the parking and the magnetometers and the lines because you’re hoping to be persuaded about who to vote for. You’ve already made up your mind. After Trump’s event in Monroe last week, there was only a small uptick in early voting in one parish- Ouachita- for one day.

“I don’t think Trump’s bringing more to the table than has already been brought into the campaign,” LSU’s Michael Henderson told the Washington Post.

It may very well be the case, however, that while Trump may not be delivering any new voters for Rispone, he could be motivating many people, particularly African Americans, who had sat out of the primary, to vote for Edwards in the runoff.

If Donald Trump’s two visits make any noticeable impact, it likely will not take long to make that determination on Saturday night, even if the winner is not known until much later. Rispone will be looking for a significant increase the total numbers of votes in rural and suburban parishes. You can pick any random sequence you want, but I will be paying close attention to Acadia, Bossier, Calcasieu, Cameron, Ouachita, DeSoto, Vernon, and Natchitoches Parishes.

Rapides Parish would ordinarily make the list, but it has a hotly-contest runoff race for sheriff, which means any correlation to Trump may be more ambiguous. Similarly, Lafayette Parish will be wrapping up a contentious and embarrassingly vapid race for Mayor-President.

PART THREE: THE GREAT GRIGSBY

When we last checked in on Leonard Lane Grigsby, he had been suffering from a terrible injury after tripping down the stairs of his ivory tower and lodging his foot directly into his mouth. To make matters worse, after spending a couple of weeks recuperating, he finally felt good enough to parade around Baton Rouge again, only to be told, by a young boy on the street, that the suit he had thought he was wearing wasn’t actually anything at all. No one had told him he’d gotten too big for his britches.

Suffice it to say, Lane Grigsby hasn’t had the best month of his life. The self-proclaimed “kingmaker” has spent a veritable fortune in his hostile takeover bid for proxy control of Louisiana state government, but after years of wanton disregard and thinly-veiled contempt for an honest and ethical democratic process- one in which voters are not purposefully fed disinformation in a cynical ploy to manipulate the outcomes of elections, Grigsby’s name has become a liability in his own backyard.

Candidates, on both sides of the aisle, are returning his checks or otherwise making it clear they aren’t interested in his help. Those who had been mistreated by him in the past are speaking out publicly for the first time. It’s been ugly.

And when you’re scrambling as a result of your own hubris, you inevitably end up doing things sloppily. It’s why Rudy Giuliani keeps accidentally butt-dialing reporters, for example.

In Grigsby’s case, he’d been so thirsty for a win that he didn’t bother to double-check his work. Recently, his PAC, the smugly-named Truth in Politics, had finally put the finishing touches on their coup de grace: A slickly-produced commercial that revealed John Bel Edwards’ college buddy had been on the receiving end of a fat government contract. Almost immediately, though, the wheels started coming off.

The contract was never awarded. The ad was a complete fabrication.

Truth in Politics hadn’t referenced a public record as their source; they referenced their own public records request.

Lane Grigsby’s Truth in Politics now has the distinction of being behind multiple campaign commercials that were taken down for not telling the truth about politics.

His most recent iteration is gutted and bereft of anything substantive; it’s now a commercial that cites a right-wing blog’s opinion piece about investigating the disproven claims made in the first commercial.

Even if his friend wins on Saturday, Grigsby has all but guaranteed that their little cabal, which Sue calls the Erector Set, will take on another name: Phony Rispone and His Cronies.

PART FOUR: NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. EVEN COLD NOVEMBER RAIN.

If you’re a normal, well-adjusted, and decent human being who lives and works in Louisiana and has been inundated with an endless loop of commercials and mailers and Facebook ads for months on end, then hopefully, by now, you are ready for the orchestra to start playing everyone off of the stage.

It’s understandable.

But before you tune out, make certain that you exercise your civic duty and vote.

It may be easy to forget, so it’s worth emphasizing: The outcome on Saturday may not affect you personally in any meaningful way, or at least, you may not believe it does. But to hundreds of thousands of people, this isn’t an abstraction.

If you are only motivated to vote because you’re worried it will hurt President Trump‘s feelings if he loses another news cycle, maybe consider reaching out to someone who could have a real stake in the outcome: Ask a public school teacher or the parents of a disabled child. Listen to someone who works in a local nonprofit or a social worker or a single mother. Ask a person who gets by on a minimum wage job.

Ask an immigrant.

There are real human lives that suffer whenever we forget about the least among us. And they don’t go away, even if you finally decide to change the channel.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar is the publisher and founder of the Bayou Brief; a native of Alexandria, Louisiana; a graduate of Alexandria Senior High School, Rice University in Houston, and SMU’s Dedman School of Law in Dallas, and an award-winning muckraker. He was the last person Andrew Breitbart ever insulted (and apologized to), and he’s responsible for breaking a series of national news stories about racism and political corruption in Texas, Mississippi, and his beloved Louisiana. He lives in Gert Town in New Orleans along with his vicious golden retrievers, Lucy Ana and Ruby Bridges.