John Bel Edwards, described by The New York Times as “a Catholic social conservative from a family of rural law enforcement officers,” easily defeated Republican David Vitter to become governor of Louisiana on Saturday, in a rare victory for his party in the South. All he needed to do was run against someone tarred by a prostitution scandal in a year when the incumbent Republican governor (Bobby Jindal) was as popular as mushy crawfish.
That it takes such extraordinary circumstances to put a Democrat into office in a red state, even a Democrat who opposes abortion and gun control, shows how much of a rut the two-party system has created in the United States. Just a couple of weeks ago, Democrat Jack Conway lost a gubernatorial race in Kentucky to Republican Matt Bevin, whom many had thought too conservative to win even in that red state. (Mr. Conway ran as a moderate, using the Clintonian line “I think abortion should be as rare as possible, but also safe and legal,” but also opposing government funding for abortions and distancing himself from Planned Parenthood.) Thanks to the scandal that caused many Republicans to abandon Mr. Vitter, Mr. Edwards will be one of four Democratic governors among the 24 states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012; there are 12 Republican governors among the 26 states that voted for Barack Obama.
The Washington Monthly’s Martin Longman cheers the result in Louisiana because Mr. Edwards “will bring Medicaid expansion to the state” and try to increase funding for higher education, but he’s troubled by the governor-elect’s opposition to abortion and gun control. “In some ways,” Mr. Longman writes, “it’s already a defeat if Democratic candidates feel that they need to concede the Republican position on these two very important issues in order to get a hearing on other policies. And there’s a price they have to pay when their party is more divided on issues than the Republicans. It waters down the message.”
Mr. Longman’s reasoning explains why each election cycle seems to produce more one-party states, where either the Democrats or Republicans control all statewide elections except in extraordinary circumstances (usually involving scandals). What he calls “watering down the message” was, not too long ago, the common practice of running candidates who reflected the mainstream views of a state or congressional district—as in the case of Republicans who supported labor unions in areas with high union membership. Public-opinion polls and past election results suggest that a strong majority of voters in Louisiana are pro-life, so it seems short-sighted to argue that the Democratic Party must run candidates who support access to abortion, even if their near-certain defeats will mean regressive policies on Medicaid and education spending. It’s not as if the election of a pro-life Democrat will confuse anyone into thinking the party as a whole shares his view; certainly next summer’s Democratic Convention will make it clear that’s not the case.
Why the GOP dominates in poor states
Last week in The New York Times, Alec MacGillis tackled the question of why many areas that are the most dependent on government programs such as food stamps (including parts of Kentucky, Maine and, in a normal year, Louisiana) now vote heavily Republican. He concludes, “the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.”
Mr. MacGillis continues, “The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder—the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.”
How can the Democrats reverse their losses among working-class whites in economically distressed areas? Mr. MacGillis suggests better voter registration of people who benefit from government programs, but he also says Democrats must find “ways to reduce the resentment that those slightly higher on the income ladder feel toward dependency in their midst” by fighting fraud and making sure such programs “are as tightly administered as possible.” The welfare reforms signed by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s seem to fit this prescription, but it’s not clear they had any lasting political benefit; resentment toward public-assistance recipients seems higher than ever in the Obama administration. Mr. MacGillis says overall economic growth would be the most powerful way to reduce the resentment, which is easier said than done.
The Louisiana election, aberrant as it may be, may encourage pundits such as U.S. Catholic’s Stephen Schneck, who argued last month that the Democratic Party’s biggest problem is “its current issue profile,” which “has shifted in our time from one about the working class and economically disadvantaged to one that emphasizes the professional classes and the special interests of identity politics.” He cites abortion and same-sex marriage as issues controlled by these identity politics.
I’m skeptical that the Democrats would win significantly more elections with pro-life candidates, especially since they would face pro-life Republicans practically everywhere. (Support for same-sex marriage will increasingly become the norm for Republican candidates, but it’s difficult to imagine circumstances where a Democrat would gain by taking the opposite stand.) Election statistics and polling leads me to conclude that there’s only a tiny sliver of the electorate who have not adopted either of the major parties’ broad views on the role of government, and that tacking to the center on social issues works only in special cases like Louisiana’s. Still, there remains some validity to Mr. Schneck’s view that “to effectively contest elections, the party needs to field candidates who reflect the issue profiles of their local constituencies.”