- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Democratic candidate for governor John Bel Edwards has surged in recent polls, raising hopes among Democrats that they might reclaim a top position in a state where Republicans hold every statewide elected job.

But pollsters, political strategists and even some within the party aren’t confident Edwards has anything more than a long-shot chance at becoming Louisiana’s next governor as people question whether a Democrat can win statewide in Louisiana anymore.

Mary Landrieu’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate re-election bid last year suggested a trend that will be difficult to disrupt in the short-term.

“You can’t ignore the backdrop in Louisiana. This is one hell of a red state,” said Bernie Pinsonat, a Baton Rouge-based pollster.

Unless something changes significantly in the three weeks before the Oct. 24 election, Edwards and Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter appear headed into the Nov. 21 runoff, leading a field that includes GOP Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne. Recent polls suggest a Vitter/Edwards runoff could be tight.

A Democratic leader in the state House of Representatives, Edwards is the sort of moderate, white Democrat that Louisiana voters used to routinely elect to statewide offices in Louisiana - before Republican gains wiped out most of those Democrats across the South.

Edwards sees an opportunity to revive the brand, thanks to voters’ deep disapproval of term-limited Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose budget cuts and candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination have rankled Louisiana residents.

Also, Vitter’s leading position has taken a hit from attack ads reminding voters about his 2007 prostitution scandal.

“We have a very unpopular, and for good reason, Republican governor. So the people of Louisiana are not going to be voting the party this year. They’re going to be voting the person,” Edwards said. “I feel very comfortable to be judged along those lines.”

Edwards’ resume could be a strong selling point in the conservative state: He’s pro-gun and anti-abortion, comes from a family of sheriffs and holds a West Point degree and military background.

Still, longtime Democratic political operative Bob Mann doesn’t think a Democrat has a strong shot to be Louisiana’s next governor.

“I find it hard to believe that John Bel Edwards, even against David Vitter, is going to buck a trend that is inexorable, the Democratic Party bleeding white voters over the last 10 years,” said Mann, now an LSU mass communications professor and a political columnist.

National Democrats seem skeptical of a win in Louisiana, too. So far, Edwards hasn’t gotten assistance from the Democratic Governors Association, though the organization says it’s monitoring the race.

Louisiana last elected a Democratic governor in 2003, Kathleen Blanco. Since then Democratic voter registration has slipped from 57 percent to 46 percent, as more than 300,000 white voters left the party. Of the whites who remain registered Democrat, many vote for GOP candidates.

In the primary competition, Edwards has largely avoided attacks as the three GOP candidates continue to target each other. That will change in a runoff, when Republicans are expected to link Edwards to President Barack Obama, who remains nearly as unpopular as Jindal in Louisiana.

“Republicans have a proven formula,” Pinsonat said. “I’m not saying (Edwards) can’t win, but he’ll have a very tough time beating David Vitter because it won’t be about Vitter. For many white voters, it will be about him and Obama.”

Edwards tries to keep the focus on Jindal, saying his GOP rivals would represent “a third Jindal term.” Democratic political consultant James Carville, who lives in New Orleans, thinks dissatisfaction with Jindal boosts Edwards’ chances.

“Can a Democrat win the governorship? It’s hard, but it’s not impossible,” Carville said at a recent luncheon in Baton Rouge. But he also added: “But the natural contour of the state is decidedly Republican.”

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