John Bel Edwards on Saturday became the first Democratic governor elected in the deep South since 2008 by beating Sen. David Vitter, who tried to overcome an 8-year-old prostitution scandal and the unpopularity of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal by exploiting the refugee issue.
Republican Sen. David Vitter tried in the final days to make the Louisiana governor’s race about President Obama and the potential for Islamic terrorists to infiltrate the U.S. posing as Syrian refugees. Voters made it more about the state’s broken finances — and Vitter.
John Bel Edwards on Saturday became the first Democratic governor elected in the deep South since 2008 by defeating Vitter, who sought to overcome an 8-year-old prostitution scandal and the unpopularity of outgoing Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal by trying to capitalize on the refugee issue after the Islamic State group’s attacks in Paris. It was the first practical political test of the issue as Republican presidential candidates and governors nationwide call for refusing Syrian refugees.
Edwards, 49, the minority leader in the Louisiana House, won 56 percent of the ballots in a state that voted for Republican Mitt Romney over Obama by a 58-41 margin in the 2012 presidential election. He focused on domestic issues and vowed to fix a state hobbled by budget deficits and spending cuts rather than on the refugee controversy.
Louisiana’s finances have been in crisis for much of Jindal’s term, the consequence of tax cuts made when federal money flowed to the state after Hurricane Katrina, falling oil prices, the state’s hidebound budget laws and Jindal’s opposition to tax increases. The governor, who dropped his bid for the Republican presidential nomination last week after getting little traction in polls, even refused to renew existing levies.
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Under Jindal, the state cut higher education more than any other U.S. state and repeatedly balanced its budget with one-time fixes. That included this year, when it closed a $1.6 billion gap in a budget passed in June.
Vitter, who was considered the front-runner when he announced his campaign for governor in 2014, trailed in the polls after a bitter three-way battle among Republicans in Louisiana’s late October primary as Democrats reminded voters that Vitter’s telephone number in 2007 was discovered in the records of a high-priced prostitution ring in Washington. Neither of Vitter’s vanquished Republican primary opponents endorsed him, and one, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, endorsed Edwards.
In the final days of the campaign, Vitter’s campaign released a series of television and radio advertisements and made recorded telephone calls to voters that linked Edwards to Obama’s refusal to reconsider his earlier decision to accept refugees from war-torn Syria into the United States.
The senator even sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Secretary of State John Kerry saying — inaccurately, according to state police and Catholic Charities — that there was a missing Syrian in Louisiana.
“John Bel Edwards has pledged to work with Obama to bring Syrian refugees to Louisiana,” one of Vitter’s ads said.
While some Vitter supporters at his election-night gathering said he was right to focus on the Syrian refugees, other voters said that didn’t sway them.
“We went to Vietnam and fought and we let those refugees in,” said William Martin, of New Orleans, 68, a Vietnam veteran who was among a steady stream of voters at Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church despite a steady rain. “I honestly don’t think it makes a difference.”
Thousands of Vietnam refugees settled in the late 1970s and 1980s on the gulf coast from Texas to Alabama, where they flourished in the shrimp-fishing industry.
Edwards won by 12 percentage points after being ahead by 4 points in the final statewide poll released Friday. Two other Republicans on the statewide ballot beat their Democratic challengers handily, each drawing 100,000 more Republican votes than Vitter did, according to the secretary of state’s website.
The victory followed three years of work rebuilding Louisiana’s Democratic Party and dissatisfaction with Jindal, said Karen Carter Peterson, state Democratic Party chairwoman and a state Senate leader.
Vitter said in his concession speech that he would not run for re-election to the Senate after his term expires in a year.