It’s not as if political anthropologists needed more than a clock and a calendar to know as much, but Gov. John Bel Edwards has definitely transitioned into full campaign mode.
With the clock slowly ticking down on 2019, Edwards has back-to-back fundraisers on his schedule for several weeks out of the remaining year. There’s chatter about a new source of independent expenditures shaping up in New Orleans, which would be in addition to the efforts presumably being plotted by consultant Trey Ourso, the man behind the PACs GUMBO and Rebuild.
Over the past couple of weeks, there have also been some rather obvious nods to last cycle — meaning 2015, when Gov. Edwards turned a startup campaign into a winning formula that’s still being studied by Democrats in other states.
For starters, Murray Starkel and Middendorf’s are back.
Lt. Col. Starkel, now retired, was one of Edwards’ classmates at West Point. Last cycle he appeared in a commercial for his political friend, and he later cut a robocall. Last week, Starkel penned a fundraising email on behalf of Edwards, writing, "John Bel has served this country and his state with honor, and he can continue to do so if supporters like you donate to his campaign for reelection."
Then there’s the catfish connection.
In October 2013, Edwards held a fundraiser at Middendorf’s Restaurant on his home turf in Manchac. There were about 300 to 400 people in attendance, mostly friends, family and Tangipahoa Parish folks who were wondering, "Has John Bel lost his mind?" At $250 per couple, the event raised $80,000, according to Tyler Bridge’s reporting in our account of the 2015 election, “LONG SHOT.”
The governor held a similar fundraiser for his re-election campaign last week, again at Middendorf’s. The headcount swelled to roughly 600 to 700 people, based on accounts from those in attendance, with the deeper-pocketed among them paying $250 per plate — and some even more, bringing the total take to $200,000 in a single night. Campaigns count on that lagniappe, and Edwards has had an easier time locating it as the incumbent than he did as a dark-horse contender.
Aside from the value of time and incumbency, the biggest differences in Gov. Edwards’ fundraising portfolio are Emilie Tenenbaum -- she became the finance director in 2016, and he is her sole client -- and the introduction of a few new GOP donor names. While not an endorsement, New Orleans’ Joe Cannizzaro co-hosted an event for the re-election campaign in the Crescent City recently.
As for other key campaign staffers, that formula is still coming together but we can expect there to be a few new faces surrounding the governor. While part of the reason is obvious — some members of the original Team JBE simply won’t be available — the truth is Edwards has more resources than last time around, key staffers are needed on the government side, and the campaign, whether supporters like it or not, will have national tentacles.
Speaking of, Edwards has enjoyed some good fortune in terms of fundraising outside of the state, with one event co-hosted earlier this year by author and former Mississippi legislator John Grisham. Friends of the campaign say those type of appeals are on hold until January, though, when mid-term fever should have passed.
In what supporters are interpreting as a good sign from bigwig party-types, the Democratic Governors Association has selected New Orleans as the site for its annual Christmas shindig — for the third year in a row. Members may arrive holding gifts for Edwards, who will be the only Democratic incumbent on the ballot next year competing against just two other gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi.
Three years ago, the governor was able to turn the so-called fundamentals of Louisiana politics sideways and present to voters a classic contrast in personalities. This go around, the fundamentals are on the governor’s side, but we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.
For Edwards, he is in an entirely different political position than he was in 2015 — or any other point in his political career, for that matter. Rather than emerging onto the scene as an unknown state representative, he now has the power of incumbency on his side, which carries both pluses and minuses. Edwards already knows the status can pull in dollar signs, and one would hope he realizes that with great power comes greater opportunities for misjudging limitations and support.
One year before his primary re-election bid receives the ultimate test, Edwards is taking on tones of 2015, maybe unintentionally. If you’re hoping for any other parallels of past efforts, you may be kept waiting until long after the 2019 sequel concludes.