BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Following the stunning win by Jeff Landry in the primary election that solidified him as the next governor of Louisiana without a runoff — Democrats in the state are pointing fingers in all directions over why their lead candidate couldn’t muster more than 26% of the vote.
Shawn Wilson faced a steep battle in the race following eight years of fellow Democrat John Bel Edwards holding the highest office in the state. Many in the capitol politics realm had whispered that a Republican would likely succeed Edwards well before any candidate had announced their run.
“It would have been difficult for any good Democrat to win … Louisiana voted for Trump, but you need somebody who’s going to who people get excited about,” said Katherine Hurst, a Democratic State Central Committee member.
Landry dominated the field from the get-go by securing an endorsement from the LAGOP and former President Donald Trump early in the race. His campaign, with the financial backing of the state party, launched ads and rallying events early on. Fundraising came easy for Landry as he had over $ 11 million cash on hand leading up to Election Day.
Democrats quickly endorsed Wilson once he settled on running, but spending power like the Republican side was just not there.
“I think it’s just problematic to constantly blame the voters who are struggling, who are not making a living wage, who are struggling to pay their utility bills and their mortgages and blame them for elections when we have too many well-off people who didn’t do the work themselves to ensure we had that infrastructure,” said Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis, District 3.
Some Democrats said this election felt different from others because there was not nearly as much community involvement and motivation as in past elections. Lewis said that over a year prior to past elections, campaign staff traveled the state to educate people on the candidate and get them involved in knocking on doors and making calls.
“There’s enough blame to go around. Not raising the money, though, to actually be viable and be out there in front of folks and then wasting a lot of money on signs certainly didn’t help,” said Stephen Handwerk, former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party.
On election night, some wanted to blame the dismal voter turnout, about 35%, on voter apathy and sporting events going on the same day. For Democrats, some believe the issue was that the base was not secured early on.
“We have failed to tell the people what we are going to do for them. We have failed to give them a case about why they should invest in us. If we’re not making the distinction between the other side and what we offer. Why should I be engaged?” Lewis said.
In a down-ballot race for treasurer, Democrat Dustin Granger received 321,426 votes while Wilson only got 275,527 votes. Some believe Granger hired a more experienced team to run his campaign, which helped pull larger numbers.
At the helm of the state party is chairwoman Katie Bernhardt. She takes the approach of meeting with people on the ground. With a shorter time to gain attention and financial support, there were some limitations to that ground strategy. There was also a time challenge of proving to national agencies that they should donate to this race.
“We had a lot of our national investors that we’re looking to to wait and come in in the runoff. Jeff (Landry) also had a great head start. I mean, he got in early. They endorsed him early, which allows the party apparatus to be so helpful in receiving hundred-thousand dollar bundles of money,” Bernhardt said.
There has also been a shift in Louisiana elections that are taking on a more national trend. Issues that dominate the campaign cycles for national candidates, such as crime, abortion, government spending, etc. are gaining more attention and support.
“We just need to work on how we amplify our candidates’ message and our party message and what our platform is about and why we do represent the vast majority of the people of this state,” Bernhardt said.
A lesson learned for some candidates is that a three- to five-month-long campaign, especially for candidates fairly unknown to the general public, is not enough time to get a base together. An assumption on one Democrat and one Republican in a runoff was a gamble that did not pay off for Wilson.
“I think that they were saving it for the runoff, which also happened in our history before. That’s how we got David Vitter elected to the U.S. Senate in the first place,” Handwerk said.
Infighting in Democrat vs. Democrat races is another issue faced by the party. A key example is the House District 91 race in New Orleans which gained statewide attention over the bitter campaigning between candidates. The progressive state Rep. Mandie Landry faced another Democrat in her re-election bid. Challenger Madison O’Malley received top-party support – getting even the support of Edwards. Mandie Landry previously had registered as an Independent after openly criticizing Bernhardt’s party leadership and the governor for his stance on abortion.
“So I understand that the Internet has taken it by storm, but the reality is that there were no state party funds expended in that race,” Bernhardt said.
In the end, Mandie Landry won her re-election to the state House outright in the primary.
Bernhardt said there’s a need to focus on voter registration. With the younger population missing at the polls this year, she wants to work on bringing them into the Democratic Party.
“We didn’t get here overnight. We’re not going to fix it overnight. But through the consistent efforts that we’ve been making, we’re going to grow and develop as an organization,” Bernhardt said.
People invested in democratic politics, like Lewis and Berhardt, are looking toward the next elections to begin the work now between votes to garner that support.
“The work is long-term. I mean, if we look at Gov. Edwards’ successful election, he had announced almost a year before Election Day and had to put in some groundwork. If we do not have the money and the infrastructure to run a three-month campaign, then we need to run a one-year, one half-year, two-year campaign,” Lewis said.
This is not the first time in history that a single candidate has won outright for governor in the primary election. In 2007 and 2011 Bobby Jindal won the majority of the vote in both his races. Before that, Mike Foster won in 1999, and in 1983 Edwin Edwards won his election in the primary.