Democrats felt very good about winning the Louisiana governor’s race until the Paris attacks happened on Friday the 13th.
Republican Sen. David Vitter, trailing by double digits in the polls, immediately seized on whether the United States should admit Syrian refugees. The issue let him get off the mat after weeks of attacks over his 2007 prostitution scandal. He went to Washington to give a floor speech on Syria, publicly sent a letter warning of a “missing” refugee and got on TV just a little more than 48 hours after the carnage in France with an advertisement invoking the horror.
Vitter and his Republican allies had struggled mightily to make the red-state, off-year race against Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards a referendum on President Obama. This gave them the chance.
Elisabeth Pearson, the executive director of Democratic Governors Association, suddenly had flashbacks to last year’s midterm elections. Several winnable contests broke away from them at the last minute because of voter fears about the Ebola outbreak, ISIS beheadings and children pouring across the border. Particularly in Maine, the Democrat was considered the favorite but Republican Gov. Paul LePage came from behind to win by publicly chastising quarantined nurse Kaci Hickox for returning to the state.
The difference this time? Democrats moved fast to attack Vitter on Syria, and Edwards quickly distanced himself from the Obama administration.
The Democratic candidate initially botched his response. A note on Edwards’ Facebook page said he’d work to “both accommodate refugees who are fleeing from religious persecution and ensure that all our people are safe.” Then he edited “accommodate” to “assist,” before putting out a statement that declared, “In light of the recent tragedy in Paris, it’s imperative for us to pause the influx of refugees flowing into our state without more information on the security measures in place.”
Gumbo PAC got its counterattack ad on the air by Wednesday. “It’s David Vitter who said he didn’t believe Syria posed a threat to the United States or our allies,” the narrator said, insisting that Edwards opposed allowing refugees in. The response ad also borrowed a page from the Republican’s 2014 playbook, attacking Vitter for missing “two-thirds of the committee hearings he was supposed to attend on Syria.”
Again, Vitter was such a terrible candidate that Edwards won anyway, but the lesson here is that Democrats in the South especially will continue to run against Obama. Whether or not they'll run against Hillary too, we'll see.
Still, Edwards won here, and he's willing to expand Medicaid for Louisiana where Vitter was not. It's a win, even an ugly one, and a bad Dem is still better than any Republican.