Shawn Wilson couldn’t recover from Republican messaging in Louisiana Governor’s race

Democrat Shawn Wilson, the former Louisiana Secretary of Transportation, lost his bid for Governor without even forcing a runoff, despite a crowded contest that included an astounding 15 names on the open Primary ballot.

That means that 14 candidates — 13 of them not named Shawn Wilson — couldn’t even muster half of the vote. Wilson himself captured just 26%.

So what the hell happened?

The astounding outright Primary victory may come down to two things — the Republican Governors Association’s early buy-in and Wilson’s inability to answer their attacks.

Let’s start by looking at just how spectacular Republican Jeff Landry’s victory — and Wilson’s loss — really is.

Landry captured not just more than half of the vote, but nearly 52% of it. That is almost unheard of in a Primary this crowded. Besides Wilson, only five candidates even managed to exceed 1% of the vote. And of those, only two exceeded 5%. There were eight Republicans on the ballot. The seven on the losing side accounted for just about 14% of the vote. That performance shows how strong Landry’s institutional support was — the GOP backed him early on.

But more spectacular is Wilson’s underwhelming performance. At less than 26% of the vote share, he underperformed incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who received 47% of the vote in the 2019 Primary.

He also underperformed the two Republicans in the 2019 Primary — Eddie Rispone and Ralph Abraham — despite the fact that they were in a hotly contested Primary. Wilson may not have been the only Democrat on the ticket this year, but he might as well have been considering the only other one on the ballot was Danny Cole, a tomato can if ever there was one.

This type of outcome is what you would expect in an open Primary where the winning party has a sole candidate while the losing party faces catastrophic vote-splitting. Yet Landry captured more than 51% of the vote when he was the one facing vote-splitting not just from his own party, but from the conservative independent candidate whose name looked at least a little similar — Hunter Lundy.

It might have all boiled down to the RGA, which spent more than $4 million not supporting Landry, but attacking Wilson.

The group began airing ads as early as June, and aggressively continued through the Oct. 14 Primary.

As the group put it in a post-election analysis, they “made a strategic decision to invest early and define the Democrat in this race before he was able to define himself.”

The ads, much like any other from third-party groups in any given race, often lacked context, but they were clearly exceedingly effective.

They attacked Wilson’s “failed record” as Secretary of Transportation and, in one, said that he had “gone crazy.” They portrayed the Democrat as a failed leader who took “sweetheart” deals.

An early ad in June blasted Wilson as responsible for the state’s second to last transportation and infrastructure ranking in the nation, its top 10 ranking for most dangerous roads and a D+ ranking from the Biden administration for roads and bridges.

An ad just before Labor Day, when the RGA really amped up its operation in the Louisiana Governor’s race and what it considered its first official action in the race, again criticizes Wilson over his transportation record, noting an $18 billion backlog in needed repairs and claiming it costs Louisiana drivers “an extra $650 a year in car repairs.”

Another ad, launched in mid-September, accuses Wilson of giving a “sweetheart deal” to Democratic megadonor Jim Bernhad, which the ad claimed awarded a $5 million contract for a new bridge in Baton Rouge to the least qualified bidder.

Wilson had at the time defended his decision, noting that technical scores are not the only factor in choosing a firm and that regional leaders and members of the Capital Area Road and Bridge District, which was leading efforts to finance the new bridge at the time, supported the contract. But voters care little about nuance when faced with any claim of malfeasance.

Toward the end of the month the RGA launched yet another ad, this one claiming Wilson was “coming for your cars” and tying him to President Joe Biden. The ad plays footage of Wilson saying voters need “to realize that you can’t all have your cars and travel like you used to” before calling Wilson “even more liberal than Biden,” who the ad says “wants to ban gas stoves.”

Biden doesn’t, at least not anymore, and Wilson’s words lacked context. But again, most voters don’t seek context or take the time to fact check ads.

Taken together, these attacks indeed defined Wilson as a pretty scary prospect for Louisiana — they portrayed him as an ineffective leader who played favorites with political donors and wanted to deprive residents of their personal vehicles.

The RGA, in an email blast to supporters, said its ad campaign was able to depress Democratic voter turnout, “thanks in large part to significant damage to Wilson’s image.”

Turnout was low, the group notes, during both absentee and early voting. In 2019, about 386,000 votes were cast during that period, while only 352,000 were cast in this election. And in Louisiana’s Democratic strongholds, overall Democratic voter turnout was way down — 13 percentage points in East Baton Rouge and 12 percentage points in New Orleans.

Wilson underperformed Bel Edwards in the state’s top four Democratic parishes, by an average of 20 percentage points, according to the RGA analysis — including an astounding 27 percentage points in Jefferson Parish.

Meanwhile, the RGA said overall GOP support was up and Landry was able to consolidate votes to get above the 50% threshold.

Landry will take office Jan. 8, and when he does, Louisiana will officially be deep red. Republicans already control both chambers in the state Legislature. Republicans currently hold the offices of Secretary of State and Attorney General, though both races are heading to a runoff with a Democrat on the ballot.

Now, political observers turn their eyes toward Kentucky where Andy Beshear, a Democrat, faces re-election against the state’s Republican Attorney General, Daniel Cameron. The race, like Louisiana, is considered a possible bellwether for 2024.

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