By Ben Baumgardner and Catherine Hunt, LSU Manship School News Service
Every year at Denham Springs Junior High, Elizabeth Rea gives her students a quiz to help them formulate their own political opinions. “I take it with them, and depending on what kinds of questions are asked, my opinions change over time,” she said. “On some issues, I’m more moderate now as I’ve gotten older.” Rea, who used to be the most conservative member of her family, found herself siding with Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards in last month’s gubernatorial election.
Edwards remains the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, even though President Donald Trump, who is popular in Louisiana, campaigned strongly against him. To win re-election, Edwards needed support from some voters like Rea who voted for the president in 2016. What drove some supporters of the Republican president to vote for the Democratic governor?
Some Trump-Edwards voters said in interviews that the dynamics of the governor’s race differed greatly from those of the 2016 presidential election, when some voted for Trump only as a way to ensure that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton would not be elected president. Mike Casteel, 61, of Sulphur, said his vote for Trump was a vote against Clinton. “I’m not a party-line voter, but I just didn’t want to take any chances with Hillary or anyone associated with her,” he said. Makenzie Morgan, a 21-year-old college student in Baton Rouge, agreed that the 2016 election “was kind of choosing between the lesser of two evils.”
Yet, she and others said, the similarities between Trump and Edwards’ recent Republican opponent, Eddie Rispone, became red flags to them. “I think Rispone aligning himself with Trump so much made me not like him more,” said Morgan. “Yes, Trump has done some good things for the national economy, but you can’t just say you’re going to be the Trump of Louisiana and expect to win.” Rea, the Denham Springs teacher, said she voted for Trump because she was intrigued that he was an outsider and a businessman, much like Rispone, rather than a career politician. However, her view quickly changed as Trump took office.
“When we got into this presidency, the whole non-politician and non-polishedness is actually a turnoff, as it turns out,” Rea, 41, said. When she saw commercials linking Rispone to Trump, Rea said she immediately started questioning if she was going to follow party lines and vote for Rispone or not, worried that Rispone might bring the worst of the president’s qualities to Louisiana’s highest office. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of Trump voters who voted for Edwards last month. Casteel, Morgan and Rea represent a small portion of these flipped votes, but the number of Trump voters who sided with Edwards was significant enough to enable Edwards to win 51% of the total vote. Trump garnered 58% of Louisiana votes in 2016 while Rispone had only 49% in 2019. While the total number of votes cast differed in the two elections, the proportion of registered Democrats to registered Republicans voting in each election was almost identical.
This indicates that a subset of Republicans voted for Edwards over Rispone, who may have also alienated some Republican voters because of his harsh attacks on another Republican candidate, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, during the primary election. Dr. Josh Stockley, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said that Trump’s visits to Louisiana in support of Rispone also helped Edwards by firing up Democrats who opposed the president. Stockley infers that Trump’s visits “sparked a stronger Democratic get-out-the-vote operation than a Republican vote operation.” Stockley cited data from the 5th Congressional District, covering Alexandria and Monroe, showing that Rispone turned out only 3,000 new voters from the primary to the general election, whereas Edwards won close to 50,000 new voters. In the 4th Congressional District, where Trump made a second visit to the state in Bossier City, a similar story played out between the primary and the general elections.
“Rispone was able to bring out 12,000 additional Republican voters, but Edwards was able to bring out 25,000 additional voters,” Stockley said. Moderates like Rea, who became turned off by some of Trump’s behavior, fit directly into this picture.
Even though any president might have visited to support his party’s candidate in a tight governor’s race, she said,Trump’s presence in the state might have done more harm than good when it came to moderate voters. Stockley, the political science professor, agreed that for many Trump voters who voted for Edwards, the differences between Edwards and Clinton were crucial. “John Bel Edwards is a very different Democrat,” Stockley said. Edwards takes a conservative stance on many issues such as abortion and firearm regulation. “In many ways, Edwards talks and acts like you would expect a Republican,” Stockley says.
For moderate Republicans, Edwards’ conservative views in these areas may have been the deciding factor in whether to cross party lines. Morgan said she also was concerned that Rispone was not specific about his policy plans. “The big thing for me was if you looked at Rispone’s website, there were never any plans discussed,” said Morgan. “There was a lot of talk about what he wanted to do, but not a lot of talk about how he was going to do it. I didn’t care that he was a Republican. I was going to vote for someone who was going to do what they said they were going to do.” Rea will benefit from Edwards’ support for a pay raise for teachers. Last summer, the Republican-led Legislature voted to give teachers pay raises of $1,000 and support staff raises of $500 each as part of Edwards’ $3.8 billion education spending plan.
However, she said, “That $1,000 raise teachers got is not the reason I voted for Edwards. “But it was kind of the devil-you-know kind of thing,” she added, saying she hopes to see more done to encourage Louisiana students to stay in-state for college and work. For Casteel, Morgan and Rea, policy plans also will play an important role in deciding whom to cast their votes for during the upcoming presidential election. All three said they would consider voting for a Democrat against Trump.
“It would have to be someone that I agreed with on certain key issues,” said Casteel, who considers himself a fiscally conservative moderate. “Absolutely not a self-proclaimed socialist.” But, he said, “I do not see a Democrat that I would vote for among the current candidates.”