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GOP voters punish Angelle, cap his political career

Payback time came for Republican Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, with a gift that keeps on giving for Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Last year, Edwards won the governorship in part because of the gusto at which Angelle joined him in attacking GOP Sen. David Vitter. Angelle hoped that by tearing down Vitter he could join Edwards in the runoff, where dynamics suggested he could defeat him. Instead, he fell short, then refused to endorse Vitter in the runoff.

One could make a strategic case for Angelle’s deferral: so badly tarnished had the tag-team disparagement of Vitter made the senator that associating with him potentially could have damaged Angelle for his future political endeavors – the next step to which became clear shortly thereafter when he announced a run for the Third Congressional District. Yet at the same time that carried great risk, for refusal to back Vitter even as it appeared his ship would sink to Republicans made Angelle seem like a disloyal opportunist, willing to stab in the back the party’s best hope to win in order to advance his own political ambitions.

The disenchantment rose to the point that the state party seriously considered censuring him for his noncommittal. But as his gubernatorial run had given him considerable political cachet, that backlash would not seem to matter in pursuit of his next office.

Except that he found himself caught in a populist wave finding itself repelled exactly by politicians all too willing to sell out their presumed causes to get ahead, whom among Republicans were seen to blame for insufficient fidelity in advancing a conservative agenda and/or resisting a liberal version. Angelle’s long service in various elected capacities and his party switch from Democrat a few years ago made him especially suspect as a get-along-go-along politician who went whichever way the wind blew to accrue insider influence.

Worse for him, a perfect foil to him emerged in the campaign – law enforcement officer Clay Higgins, who had no political experience but some celebrity status as the voice of uncompromising public service announcements designed to track down criminals, videos that gained international attention. Despite some unflattering events in his past, on a shoestring budget the plainspoken rank outsider ran only slightly behind Angelle in the general election.

As previously noted, the dynamics of that contest set off severe warning bells for Angelle. Notably, they ran essentially even among whites and republicans, with Angelle’s small advantage due to garnering four times the black vote and 50 percent more of the other/no party vote. Republicans that did not vote for either could be expected disproportionately to push the button for Higgins in the runoff, but Angelle should have expected most of those who supported Democrat candidates to come his way.

The problem with that dynamic was those voters, in an all-Republican matchup, likely would disproportionately not return for the runoff. As it transpired, turnout plunged from two-thirds to just over a quarter of the electorate, a decrease of 60 percent – worst for Angelle, more than the other two federal contests on the ballot, precisely because the other pair squared off a Democrat and a Republican. And it did happen in a manner that hurt Angelle – while turnout in precincts with at least 95 percent white registration had slightly fewer than half the turnout as in the general election, in precincts with at least 95 percent black registration had just 40 percent of that previous turnout, and while majority Republican precincts had over 53 percent turnout, in precincts of a majority of white Democrats it was under 48 percent.

But where Angelle really fell behind was among Republican voters, where in those precincts he barely pushed above 40 percent, and even among white Democrats he got only almost 43 percent in those precincts. And even though he racked up over 78 percent in black precincts, that actually was slightly worse relatively when compared to Higgins in the general election.

In other words, in the runoff Republicans punished him more than any other group, even though he had possessed a slightly higher proportion of their votes than had Higgins in the general election. Another way of viewing it, given turnout differentials, had the ratio of Republicans flipped, the race would have been a dead heat

Instead, Higgins blew out him out 56-44 – and in the process might have clamped a lid on Angelle’s political career. Potentially the next step for Angelle if in Congress could have entailed another stab at governor, following the model of former Gov. Bobby Jindal who lost his initial run for governor narrowly, subsequently won a House seat, then made another attempt that pushed the incumbent out of the race and, perhaps partially due to a wave of voter remorse, subjugated the field on this second try. Angelle may have believed that after four years of Edwards’ liberalism at odds with the majority of Louisiana’s center-right electorate it might have regretted not choosing Angelle last year and would sent him in Edwards’ place.

Now, that scenario becomes exponentially less likely. Angelle’s defeat dashes any aura of invincibility and inevitability, which will chase away donors and activists. This should make Edwards giddy, for even as he seems destined to face a strong GOP challenger in the form of Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, another quality opponent could have eaten away at enough of his moderate support to preclude his participation in a runoff. With a noticeably weakened Angelle, that possibility diminishes.

You do the crime, you do the time. Angelle got caught out by events that maximized blowback from his behavior of a year ago, and paid the price. Republican potential candidates and present elected officials, as members of the barely-disputed majority party in the state, particularly should heed this lesson.

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