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Louisiana 2023: The Road to Saturday’s Primary

A Commentary By J. Miles Coleman

With a November runoff expected, some context for this weekend’s jungle primary.


— On Saturday, Louisiana voters will go to the polls to begin selecting a replacement for term-limited Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA).

— In the all-party primary, state Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) has been the frontrunner for much of the campaign and will likely advance to a runoff.

— The state Democratic establishment has thrown its weight behind former state Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, who will probably join Landry in a runoff.

— Despite Edwards’s success in recent gubernatorial elections, many of the dynamics that favored him in 2015 and 2019 are now absent. The Crystal Ball rates the race as Likely Republican.

Previewing Louisiana’s Saturday primary

In the 2022 midterm elections, one area where Democrats most obviously beat historical expectations were the gubernatorial contests. Despite defending several marginal states, Democrats came out with a net gain of governorships. While it was impressive that Democrats held up well in states that are typically competitive — such examples include Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin — their overall net gain was due to flipping a pair of solidly blue northeastern states: Maryland and Massachusetts. In the former, Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD) was term-limited while, in the latter, Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) decided against seeking a third term. But the outcome was the same in both cases: as popular governors from the non-dominant state party left office, their states reverted to their baseline partisanship, giving Democratic candidates healthy victories. (Only two other states changed, as Democrats flipped marginal Arizona and Republicans flipped marginal Nevada).

If the 2022 gubernatorial cycle was disappointing for Republicans, some good news may be on the horizon for the GOP. Even if they come up short in Kentucky’s closely-watched contest, where Gov. Andy Beshear (D) is a modest favorite to secure a second term, Louisiana may essentially act as a “replacement” for either Maryland or Massachusetts.

In 2015, Louisiana voters, to say the least, had had enough of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Reelected in a landslide in 2011, Jindal spent much of his second term in office camped out in Iowa as he chased his dream of becoming president. Back home, as the state grappled with budgetary shortfalls, voters felt ignored — by the time Jindal left office, his approval ratings were very negative, even among Republicans. State Rep. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat with some socially conservative stances, seemed to fit the moment: buoyed by Jindal’s poor standing, Edwards faced then-Sen. David Vitter (R) in a runoff. Edwards capitalized on Vitter’s personal baggage and won the governorship 56%-44% — with that, Louisiana became the only formerly Confederate state to have a GOP governor when Barack Obama first took office but a Democratic governor when he left office.

Throughout his first term, Edwards kept generally good approval ratings. Edwards’s positive image, combined with a strong Democratic turnout effort, allowed him to secure reelection even as then-President Donald Trump made multiple appearances in the state on behalf of Republican candidates. In a tough runoff, Edwards defeated GOP businessman Eddie Rispone by just under 3 points.

With Edwards now term-limited, Louisiana voters will head to the polls on Saturday — aside from federal general elections, which take place on Tuesdays in November, Louisiana typically holds most other elections on Saturdays — to begin to pick his successor. If no candidate receives more than 50% on Saturday, a runoff will be held on Nov.18.

For the past few years, it has been a poorly-kept secret that state Attorney General Jeff Landry (R-LA) had been eyeing a gubernatorial run. As the state’s chief legal enforcement officer, Landry has been a constant thorn in the side for Edwards — Landry has sued Edwards on matters ranging from masking to LGBTQ rights to budgetary items.

Landry’s career path has been one with both electoral ups and downs. In 2010, Landry came to Congress as part of the Tea Party wave that year. But for 2012, Louisiana had to drop down from 7 seats to 6 in the House — he was drawn into a new district that favored Rep. Charles Boustany, a more senior, and establishment-friendly Republican. After losing to Boustany, Landry took a brief reprieve from elected office. But in 2015, he returned to oust then-state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell — Democrats were frustrated with Caldwell, who left their party to join the GOP in 2011, while many Republicans didn’t fully trust him.

Though Louisiana’s jungle primary system has endured for five decades, the political parties themselves have viewed the election format with what can be described, at best, as begrudging acceptance. One reason that the parties dislike the system is that the late primary essentially delays the nominating process. In most states, the parties nominate candidates during the spring or summer — as they have in Kentucky and Mississippi this year — then the nominees can fundraise and campaign as the official flag-bearers for the side. In Louisiana state races, nominees are often not designated until the fall primary. Similarly, and this is more frequent at the legislative level, runoff races will feature only Democrats or only Republicans, putting the political parties in the awkward position of having to play favorites from their own ranks.

Still, in some recent cases, the parties have found it necessary to put their thumbs on the scales for candidates in advance of the primary. In 2014, then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) held what was considered a must-win seat for Senate Republicans, who were trying to get back into the majority after spending the better part of a decade out of power. Citing the stakes, the Louisiana GOP endorsed then-Rep. Bill Cassidy (R, LA-6) that May — Cassidy was Landrieu’s most formidable challenger in a field that featured some other minor Republicans. Though Landrieu placed first in the primary, Cassidy won a December runoff.

Last November, just days before Election Day 2022, the state Republican apparatus again made an early endorsement. This time, Republicans backed Landry. While the party seemed to have solid reasoning for endorsing Cassidy in 2014 — he was clearly the most viable and best-funded Landrieu foe — the Landry endorsement was met with heavy criticism from other prominent Republicans — after all, the race was just beginning, and the field seemed wide open.

However it was received by other potential candidates, the November 2022 endorsement was essentially the opening salvo of the 2023 gubernatorial race. After the state GOP made its preference clear, it was an open question whether the “anybody but Landry” movement would be able to consolidate behind a candidate. But one after another, top-tier Republicans took a pass on the race — first, it was the state’s two GOP senators, John Kennedy and Bill Cassidy, then Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser (R) surprisingly announced he’d seek reelection instead of running for a promotion. Then, all eyes turned to Rep. Garret Graves (R, LA-6), a five-term Baton Rouge-area congressman. But Graves was instrumental in now-former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R, CA-20) ascent to the House’s top job earlier this year — Graves signaled that he was more interested in helping GOP leadership manage the chaos on the Hill than in running for a position back home.

While Landry has remained the frontrunner, he will have three notable GOP opponents on Saturday’s ballot. Stephen Waguespack, who spent the last decade leading the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the state’s most influential lobbying groups, and state Treasurer John Schroder typically poll best against Landry, although both are often in single-digits. Sharon Hewitt, who leads the GOP state Senate caucus, is also in the mix.

Waguespack is originally from Ascension Parish, a relatively fast-growing exurban parish south of Baton Rouge, while Schroder and Hewitt are from St. Tammany Parish, north of New Orleans. For much of the campaign, Mandeville Rep. Richard Nelson was a third St. Tammany Parish Republican candidate, but he dropped out last month and endorsed Landry (his name will still appear on the ballot). From a geographic perspective, it will be worth watching if any other Republican can make a dent in Landry’s support in Acadiana — he is a Cajun from Iberia Parish — or if they can keep him from totally dominating the north, a region that may have been up for grabs if the race was truly competitive.

All three non-Landry Republicans are, to some extent, running as more business-friendly and less populisty versions of Landry, and they have criticized the frontrunner for repeatedly missing debates. Still, as of September, Landry has more cash-on-hand than all his major opponents combined.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Edwards has endorsed his former Secretary of Transportation, Shawn Wilson. Compared to Edwards, though, Wilson is running as a Democrat more aligned with the national party. For instance, Edwards is one of the nation’s few prominent anti-abortion rights Democrats — likely a political asset in a socially conservative state — while Wilson is supportive of abortion rights. With most of the Democratic institutional support in his corner, Wilson seems poised to claim a spot in the runoff alongside Landry. According to state analyst and pollster John Couvillon, just over a quarter of early voters have been Black — it seems reasonable to assume that the bulk of those voters will break for Wilson, giving him enough of a floor to surpass the non-Landry Republican candidates.

Though we’ll take stock after the results of the primary come in, we’d expect a Landry/Wilson runoff to essentially break down as any partisan race would in Louisiana — in presidential elections since 2008, the state has gone roughly 60%-40% for Republican nominees. Unlike Edwards in 2015, Wilson doesn’t have the luxury of running against an unpopular outgoing administration. While Landry’s record as Attorney General is not unassailable, he lacks the type of personal baggage that Vitter brought to the table eight years ago.

And then there’s the financial situation. As Republican candidates and groups have spent at least $25 million, Democrats have spent close to nothing so far. Of course, Democrats, who are basically guaranteed a spot in the runoff (assuming that there is a runoff), simply may not need to spend much before the primary. Still, as mentioned earlier, the Landry campaign itself is considerably better-funded than Wilson’s.

For now, our Likely Republican rating is going to stand. One dynamic that has hurt Republicans in the past — and that could be at play in an eventual runoff — is their inability to move past primary infighting. In 2015, Vitter made the runoff by slugging past two other serious Republicans in the primary. In the runoff, neither endorsed the then-damaged Vitter. In 2019, Rispone never truly mended fences with then-Rep. Ralph Abraham (R, LA-5), who he narrowly beat out to make the runoff against Edwards. In the runoff, Rispone’s showing in Abraham’s northeastern Louisiana base was weaker than it could have been. So after Saturday’s vote, it will be telling to see if, and how quickly, the eliminated GOP candidates unite behind Landry, although the path to unity seems clearer this time than it did in either 2015 or 2019.

As we have suggested throughout this article, we are not expecting an outright Landry victory on Saturday — but it is not too far-fetched to envision him claiming a majority. While Landry is clearly the favorite, it seems likelier than not that the combined weight of the other Republicans will be enough to hold him under 50%, precipitating a runoff.

J. Miles Coleman is an elections analyst for Decision Desk HQ and a political cartographer. Follow him on Twitter @jmilescoleman.

See Other Political Commentary by J. Miles Coleman.

See Other Political Commentary.

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