On November 16, 2019, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) was re-elected by a roughly 3-point margin, defeating businessman Eddie Rispone (R). Edwards had won his first term in 2015 by defeating scandal-plagued U.S. Senator David Vitter (R), and, going up against a scandal-free challenger in a state that Donald Trump won by 20 percent, Edwards was seen as vulnerable. Polls just before the election showed him neck-and-neck with Rispone, who Trump held three rallies for in the weeks before the election.
Political analyst and Louisiana native J. Miles Coleman says that, for a Democrat to win a statewide election in Louisiana, they must meet two major criteria: African-Americans must be at least 30 percent of the electorate, and they must receive at least 30 percent of the white vote. The first criterion is routinely achieved by Democratic presidential candidates, though it is more difficult to reach those numbers in off-year elections. It is the second criterion, the percentage of the white vote, that best explains why Louisiana is a red state (Democratic presidential candidates haven’t hit even 20 percent of the white vote for more than 15 years), and demonstrates the importance of the patterns that will be visible in the maps below.
In 2015, as Edwards was winning a 56-44 victory, he won 52 out of 105 state House districts.
In 2019, as Edwards won re-election by a smaller 3-point margin, he won only 43 districts.
This next map compares Edwards’ performance in each district between 2015 and 2019.
As you can see clearly on the map, Edwards’ performance fell dramatically in rural areas, and particularly in southwestern Louisiana – Cajun Country. In many places, the margins by which his performance dropped were greater than the 6 percent cushion that he had in 2015. So how did he manage to pull out a win?
Edwards replaced some of those lost Cajun voters with voters in the New Orleans suburbs. He improved from 2015 in almost every New Orleans-area district. His largest improvements were in suburban Jefferson Parish, and his largest improvements there were in the East Bank – a formerly heavily-Republican area that swung dramatically toward him. He also improved in the West Bank, but by smaller margins, because the West Bank already had a solid Democratic base before the election.
Jefferson Parish is a place worth taking a closer look at. I’ll start with the East Bank because it saw the largest swings toward Edwards. The largest place there is Metairie, an unincorporated, mostly-white (though slowly diversifying) suburb of New Orleans that is actually one of the largest unincorporated places in the country. It used to be a Republican bastion – John McCain won it by a 76-22 margin in the 2008 presidential election. That 54-point margin from 2008 shrunk all the way down to a mere 5-point margin for Eddie Rispone in 2019. All of the state House (and state Senate) districts with the largest swings toward Edwards in 2019, including the only ones that flipped from Vitter to Edwards, are based in Metairie. The second-largest New Orleans suburb, and the largest incorporated one, is Kenner, located just west of Metairie. Kenner flipped from a 63-36 McCain victory in 2008 to a 56-44 Edwards victory in 2019, thus moving from 8 points to the right of the state to 9 points to the left of the state. Just southeast of Kenner are two small, wealthy suburbs, River Rouge and Harahan, both of which still voted for Rispone but by substantially smaller margins than Republicans had received in the past – River Rouge moved from 76-22 McCain to 57-43 Rispone, while Harahan moved from 85-13 McCain to 62-38 Rispone. Rounding out the East Bank is Jefferson, a town that has diversified significantly in the past decade, and moved from 55-43 McCain to 71-29 Edwards.
On the West Bank (which, strangely enough, is the portion of Jefferson Parish south of the Mississippi River), the swings were not quite so dramatic, but still significant. Starting with the two incorporated suburbs on the West Bank, Gretna and Westwego, Gretna swung from 53-45 McCain to 62-38 Edwards, and Westwego shifted from 65-32 McCain to voting for Rispone by a single percentage point. The unincorporated areas were similar – Marrero, the largest community on the West Bank, swung from 59-39 Obama to 74-26 Edwards, while neighboring Harvey shifted from 50-49 Obama to 72-28 Edwards. Terrytown, an unincorporated area adjacent to both the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers and the ultra-conservative Plaquemines Parish town of Belle Chasse, swung from 54-45 McCain to 67-33 Edwards. And Estelle, located just south of Marrero, shifted from 62-37 McCain to 58-42 Edwards.
When comparing Edwards’ 2019 victory to his 2015 one, the swings are less dramatic, but still impressive. This comparison shows just how much better he did in the East Bank in particular, while improving by smaller margins in most of the West Bank. Edwards actually did slightly worse in 2019 than in 2015 in several places in southwestern Jefferson Parish, probably because those areas are more rural and less suburban than most of the parish.
An important point to note here is the election that I’m comparing 2019 to – 2008. In 2008, Barack Obama inspired African-Americans across the country to turn out in large numbers and vote almost unanimously for him. In most places, it is simply not possible for African-Americans to vote any more Democratic than they did in 2008. Therefore, these massive swings toward Edwards were driven mostly by white people shifting their voting preferences from McCain to Edwards. It is thus clear that Edwards successfully replaced the conservative Cajuns who he lost in 2019 with white New Orleans suburbanites, thus trading rural white voters for suburban white voters. Democrats have been making this same trade in countless other places across America since Trump was elected, though usually not at the scale at which Edwards swung New Orleans’ white suburbanites toward him.
Comparing the 2015 and 2019 elections to show which districts swung from Edwards to Rispone and from Vitter to Edwards shows the pattern well. Ten state House districts and four state senate districts swung from Edwards in 2015 to Rispone in 2019, while one state House district and one state Senate district (both based in eastern Metairie) swung from Vitter in 2015 to Edwards in 2019.
One notable aspect of this election is that Democrats downballot were mostly unable to take advantage of Edwards’ success in the gubernatorial race. Five state senate districts that voted for Edwards also elected a Republican to the state senate, and four of those Republicans did not even face a Democratic challenger. This allowed the Republicans to win a supermajority in the state Senate. Democrats’ record in the state House was slightly better – seven state House districts that voted for Edwards elected Republicans, and two elected Independents. Of those seven Republicans, three of them did not face Democratic challengers, and neither of the two Independents did – one of them was unopposed, and the other faced a Republican. In addition, a Democrat, Mack Cormier, actually defeated an incumbent Republican, Chris Leopold, in a district that Edwards won by a 62-38 margin. That, plus the Democrats lucking out in heavily-Republican HD-19 by their candidate, Francis Thompson, picking up that district unopposed, prevented Republicans from also winning a supermajority in the state House, thereby preventing Republicans from overriding Edwards’ vetoes on party-line votes.
Finally, here are the gubernatorial results by State Senate district and the change from 2015: