Shawn Wilson, the Democrat likely to make the runoff election in Louisiana’s gubernatorial race, faces a heavy lift as the party looks to hold on to its only governor’s mansion in the Deep South this November.
Term-limited Gov. John Bel Edwards is the lone statewide elected Democrat in Louisiana. His 2015 and 2019 victories were attributed largely to Republican infighting in the state’s all-party primaries and to Edwards’s ability to build coalitions.
Wilson, the former state secretary of Transportation and Development, hopes to succeed Edwards in a state where former President Trump beat President Biden in 2020 by double digits. But political observers are skeptical Wilson will be able to recreate Edwards’s coalition.
“The elephant in the room … is that Dr. Wilson is an African American candidate,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, a strategist for Edwards’s 2015 campaign who now works for Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser’s reelection campaign. “[M]eeting white Republican voters where they are is even harder when you’re trying to do it as an African American candidate.”
Wilson would be the first Black statewide elected official in Louisiana since Reconstruction if he won. He’s running with Edwards’s and the state Democratic Party’s endorsement.
Candidates of all affiliations run in the same primary Oct. 14. If nobody gets a majority, the top two advance to a Nov. 18 runoff. A runoff is almost certain, with Wilson and state Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) the current polling front-runners by wide margins.
In 2019, when Edwards won reelection by fewer than 3 percentage points against political newcomer Eddie Rispone (R), registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 42 percent to 31 percent in the state. Democrats now make up 39 percent of the electorate to Republicans’ 34 percent.
Sixty-one percent of Democrats are Black, whereas white voters make up 94 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of those otherwise affiliated.
In one of his few comments on the topic, Wilson said, “There will always be folks who have extreme prohibitions when it comes to race,” NOLA.com reported.
“I get that,” Wilson continued. “The reality is, at what point do we rise to a level of civility and citizenship and not limit ourselves based on something as deep as my skin tone to dictate our future? What I ask folks to do in comparing me in that situation is consider my record, my achievements, my preparation. And you can consider my race as well.”
Wilson is campaigning on bipartisanship, highlighting a background working in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Robert Mann, Manship chair in Journalism at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and a former communications director to ex-Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), said Wilson’s collegial reputation and bipartisan record could help him if Republicans “try to paint [Wilson] as being some … general of the BLM [Black Lives Matter] movement and an ‘angry Black man’ and a radical[.]”
Still, Mann questioned whether Wilson will garner sufficient support from Republican voters.
“Under Shawn Wilson’s leadership Louisiana dropped 10 spots in infrastructure. Louisiana is now the second worst state in the nation, and that’s unacceptable,” Courtney Alexander, RGA national press secretary, said in a statement.
Wilson said he built consensus and created “the largest infrastructure investment in state history,” listing projects under his watch in a campaign video.
Wilson is “a very well-credentialed bureaucrat who has done amazing work when it comes to infrastructure in our state,” Wray said. “But we’re in a moment where most voters are citing crime as their top concern.”
She added that “not having that background as a crime-fighting family,” like Edwards has, is “probably a disadvantage in this cycle,” especially when facing “technically the top law enforcement official in the state,” referring to Landry.
Wray thinks Wilson is nonetheless the right person “to give it the very best effort that Democrats can get.”
Landry faces his own coalition-building challenges. He’s made headlines on hot-button issues in recent years, including over his push for a state law restricting what books minors can take out of public libraries.
He sought some distance from the library issue in a recent interview on WWNO. Landry said that, while it’s important, “I think this whole thing has been conflated and overblown by people who have a different set of agendas. I mean, look, why can’t we go back and concentrate on jobs, education and crime?”
Landry described education, crime and outmigration statistics as failures of current leadership in his campaign launch video.
Wray said Landry, whom former President Trump endorsed in May, “has a very solid base of mostly self-identified MAGA voters.” But some people “do not view themselves as a big fan of far-right candidates and are concerned with economic issues, consumer issues, insurance costs.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) recently endorsed Landry, “and that endorsement to me is a huge signal that Jeff Landry is becoming more transactional,” Wray said.
Cassidy was one of seven GOP senators who voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment.
Wilson in his WWNO interview criticized “culture war” issues in the state Legislature when asked about his more health care rights stance compared to Edwards.
After the Legislature overrode Edwards’s veto of a bill banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors last month, Wilson said he supported Edwards’s veto, adding, “These unnecessary culture wars distract from the real issues facing our state like education, public safety and economic opportunity.”
Several Republican candidates, including Landry, said they supported the bill.
Democrats hope messaging around GOP extremism, along with a crowded Republican field, helps Wilson.
In a statement, national press secretary for the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) Devon Cruz said “the crowded field of extreme Republicans is spending millions to tear each other apart” and that “there will be a major and competitive contrast in the general election between moving Louisiana forward with Shawn Wilson’s bipartisan leadership or going backward in an extreme and divisive direction.”
The state Republican Party sought to unify early this cycle, endorsing Landry last November. The unprecedented move came with a financial advantage as Landry can receive unlimited sums from the party, Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate reported.
Governor’s Victory Fund has given Landry’s campaign millions of dollars. He had more than $9 million on hand as of early July.
Wilson, who entered the race in March, had just under $600,000 on hand at that time.
A recent fight over the state’s congressional maps could affect voter enthusiasm. Wray said “it could be put to African American voters pretty soon that the next governor is going to have a lot to say about how those maps are drawn,” which could benefit Wilson.
Last year, Edwards vetoed the Legislature’s congressional district map. The Legislature narrowly overrode his veto, mostly along party lines.
A lower court then ruled that the state must redraw the map to include a second majority-Black district. Landry, as attorney general, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to pause the ruling.
The high court sent the Louisiana case back to a lower court in June after striking down Alabama’s map in a similar case, a move expected to result in a second majority-Black district.
John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster who typically works with Republicans, said the issue could be “a double-edged sword” in terms of which voters it mobilizes.
“[M]ore to the point … when you talk about Black turnout, there has to be a sufficient amount of enthusiasm, which also means that you have to have money spent on turnout operations.” Wilson’s current finances mean he has to make “hard choices” on that front, Couvillon said.
With Wilson seen as almost sure to make the runoff, Democrats may be conserving resources until after the October election.
In 2015, the DGA made major investments in the runoff phase, leaving attacks on Republicans to other Republicans in the primary. The group attributed Edwards’s upset that year partly to its late-stage investment strategy.
The ballot was just finalized on Aug. 10, and months of campaigning remain.