Why the Louisiana Governor’s Race Is So Close

METAIRIE, La. — The crucial cultural dividing line in Louisiana has always been north-south. Those who live in north Louisiana are mostly Protestant, speak with a familiar Southern twang and, in the modern era, voted heavily Republican. But rural South Louisiana is more Catholic, the accent is like nothing else (as anyone knows listening to the L.S.U. football coach Ed Orgeron on Saturdays) and the politics has tended more Democratic.

“If you looked around and saw oak trees and Spanish moss, you knew you were in a Democratic and Catholic part of the state,” said Trey Ourso, a Democratic strategist, recounting an old rule of thumb. “If you saw pine trees, you were in a more Protestant and Republican area.”

Yet as Louisiana voters go to the polls Saturday to decide the highly competitive runoff for governor between Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Eddie Rispone, his Republican challenger, the traditional regional divide is giving way to an urban versus rural political chasm that is shaping elections across the country. Republicans are dominating the countryside across much of the state, while Democrats are running up large margins in the cities in both the north and south while gaining strength in the suburbs.

Mr. Edwards, a pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights native of a small town, has spent much of his time in Louisiana’s cities as the campaign wound down. He appeared in New Orleans earlier in the week at a black-owned art studio, filled with a mix of respectful and creative renderings of Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and J. Edgar Hoover, and returned to the city Friday for a concert featuring the local music legend Trombone Shorty.

Mr. Rispone is a millionaire business executive from Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s second-largest city, but he has run a campaign linking himself to President Trump with jeremiads against illegal immigration aimed at stirring rural Trump voters. Republicans have brought the president to the state three times since last month to energize his voters, but all three visits have been far removed from New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s population hubs.

The strategy of injecting national politics into local races in one of America’s most idiosyncratic states didn’t start with this election. Over the last decade, Republicans have leveraged national fights over figures like Barack Obama and social issues like abortion and gun control to rally culturally conservative voters and seize near-total control of what was once a split congressional delegation.

It’s a politics that is more partisan, predictable and homogenized — a world away from the byzantine complexity of an earlier Louisiana, which the writer A.J. Liebling once wrote was matched “only in the republic of Lebanon.”

What’s striking about the contest between Mr. Edwards and Mr. Rispone is how little the candidates’ profiles have altered the increasingly hardened divisions in the state. The governor is a West Point graduate who became an Army Ranger, but his personal background and traditional credentials go only so far with some voters who are deeply suspicious of any Democrat. The gulf separating voters across racial, educational and regional lines — as they identity with a party as loyally as they once did a church — has only become wider.

“This really deep partisan division that’s happening nationally is settling in on Louisiana, too,” Mr. Edwards acknowledged in an interview.

Of course, that works in part to the governor’s advantage. He performed well or at least ahead of where most Democrats have in the state’s metropolitan areas in last month’s all-party primary election.

Remarkably, his strong showing included Jefferson Parish, which is the largest locality in suburban New Orleans and was where modern Republicanism first took root in the state. But with an influx of Hispanic, Vietnamese-American and African-American voters, and with the drift of college-educated whites away from the Trump-era G.O.P., the parish has become more friendly to Democrats.

“These suburbs used to be reliably Republican,” said former Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat. “But now you’ve got some moderate Republican women who find what’s going on in the White House appalling.”

Mr. Edwards received 53 percent of the vote in Jefferson Parish in the October primary. In 2003, when Bobby Jindal, a Republican, was making his first bid for governor, he captured nearly 63 percent of the vote there even as he lost statewide.

Even as recently as 2008, when John McCain was being routed nationally, he still managed to capture 65 percent of the vote in Jefferson Parish. But by 2016, Mr. Trump was winning only 55 percent there as he easily carried the state.

“McCain was the kind of Republican who could put together the crazies and country clubbers,” observed Roy Fletcher, a longtime political strategist here.

There was an ample supply of those from the latter category one morning this week at Royal Blend, a popular local coffeehouse in tony Old Metairie, which sits on the canal that divides Jefferson and Orleans parishes.

Many voters stopping in for their café au laits said they planned to support Mr. Rispone, mostly because he is the Republican nominee. But it was not difficult to find people who, more quietly, said they would probably back Mr. Edwards.

Many of them cited the deficits the governor inherited from the previous Republican administration, a staple of Mr. Edwards’s advertising, and praised his support for higher education spending.

“He didn’t exactly inherit the easiest situation in the world,” said Jake Weinstock, who said he was a lifelong Republican but believed Mr. Edwards had “done a really good job.”

Mr. Weinstock was less enthused about discussing Mr. Trump. “I’m going to no comment on that one,” he said.

Karen Hoffman, who was walking her French bulldogs, Angus and Bert, said she voted for Mr. Trump but was open to opposing him in 2020, depending on who Democrats nominate, and had some advice for the president. “He just needs to shut up,” Ms. Hoffman said.

A former teacher, she said she was leaning toward Mr. Edwards because of his education policies and because she likes his wife, Donna, a public school teacher.

Yet this race remains neck-and-neck in the polls in large part because Democrats can no longer rely on rural south Louisiana and especially Acadiana, home to much of the Cajun population. Colorful Democrats who hailed from there, like former Gov. Edwin Edwards and former Senator John Breaux, once enjoyed electoral success because of reliable party faithful in the region. John Bel Edwards didn’t even each 30 percent in the first round of voting in some South Louisiana parishes.

The national Democratic Party’s sharp turn left has made it difficult on local elected Democrats there, many of whom have either retired, changed parties or been defeated.

“There’s a feeling that the Democratic Party has left us,” said former Representative Billy Tauzin, who entered Congress a Democrat and left a Republican.

The party’s stance on abortion and guns alienated many voters in and around Louisiana’s bayous. And the Democrats’ rising discomfort with the oil and gas industry, and Mr. Edwards’s own state lawsuits against it, has turned even more Cajuns into Republicans.

“They all look at him as somebody who’s against their industry,” said Norby Chabert, a state lawmaker who also switched from Democrat to Republican.

Asked how somebody with his biography could fare so poorly in the region, Mr. Edwards, who is Catholic, said “it would’ve been worse without” his culturally traditional profile and blamed partisanship.

Mr. Tauzin put it more succinctly. “Our new divisions,” he said, “look more like our national divisions.”

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