For Democrats across the South, the 2015 election of Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards has been one of the only bright spots in a years-long record of decline and disaster. In a story that’s a must-read for Arkansas Dems, Politco asks whether Edwards offers a roadmap for the party to emerge from the wilderness in red states, or if his victory was an anomaly:
[Edwards’] military background and socially conservative cred might have had real appeal to voters in the state, but he also happened to run for governor in 2015 against a Republican opponent, Sen. David Vitter, who had admitted to patronizing a prostitution ring. The outgoing Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, became a millstone for Vitter. Jindal left office with a 25 percent approval rating. Admitted [James] Carville: “You have to acknowledge that the circumstances here were unique, and he made the most of them.” So is Edwards really a model for the Democratic Party moving forward? Or is he a fluke?
Bobby Jindal’s faith-based, slash-and-burn approach to fiscal matters (like that of his counterpart in Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback) proved to be political poison. That’s a lesson that hasn’t been lost on Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has shown some restraint in pursuit of cuts to taxes and spending, at least in terms of their pacing.
Hutchinson is as eager to roll back government as any conservative, but he’s doing it slowly and carefully. By making his tax cuts roughly consistent with the growth of general revenue, he’s yet to engineer deep cuts to services. His first two major tax cuts focused on middle-income and lower-income households, rather than the rich. And, he’s mostly left in place the hybrid Medicaid expansion established by his Democratic predecessor and moderate-leaning Republican legislators. That pragmatic conservative approach to bread-and-butter issues means there’s little opening for an Edwards-like gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas at the moment, and it’s one reason why Hutchinson’s reelection in 2018 seems like such a sure bet. (A good economy and record-low unemployment figures haven’t hurt.)
Meanwhile, the governor is shrinking Arkansas government outlays by huge amounts wherever possible. Expect much of that “savings” to show up in yet another round of tax cuts in 2019, which Hutchinson himself has said will be focused on the wealthy.
Which brings us back to Edwards, and the question of whether a socially conservative Democrat can still win in the South — and if so, whether Dems are willing to accept the tradeoff. Politico calls Edwards “pro-life and pro-gun,” which clearly places him out of step with the national party; it also likely explains why he was able to win election in Louisiana. The article quotes Arkansas Democrat Michael John Gray:
He may not fit that ideological purity test that we’re putting on Dems now, but what he does is fight for people,” said Michael John Gray, a state representative in Arkansas who chairs the state party. “Even some of the staunchest left advocates in the party told me afterward that they understand we have to have a big tent. He created a sense of pride. If this guy can do it in Louisiana, we can do it here.
Simply being socially conservative doesn’t mean a Democratic candidate can triumph in a state like Arkansas, but it may be a precondition. Should Democrats in Arkansas and elsewhere support pro-life candidates if it gives them a shot at winning over an overwhelmingly pro-life electorate?
Some would say that’s selling out, pure and simple. Maybe they’re right. But bear in mind that Edwards brought Medicaid expansion to Louisiana — something inconceivable under Jindal or another Republican — thereby extending health coverage to tens of thousands of low-income Louisiana residents, including many, many women. No Edwards, no Medicaid expansion.
Is that a tradeoff progressives in conservative states are willing to consider? Or is it a false choice?