Johnbelobama.com, a website launched by the campaign committee supporting Edwards' Republican opponent, US Sen. David Vitter.Google the name "John Bel Edwards," and the first sponsored web ad that pops up will ask if you are "sick of lying politicians," along with a link to the Louisiana Democratic gubernatorial candidate's website. The ad just below it declares "Edwards = Obama" with a link to
Johnbelobama.com features an attack ad declaring that voting for Edwards is like voting for President Obama to be the state's next governor. The ad is currently running across Louisiana.
"Want proof? Obama dangerously calls for releasing six thousand criminals from jail," the spooky voice on the ad claims. "Edwards joined Obama, promising at Southern University he'll release fifty-five hundred in Louisiana alone. Fifty-five hundred dangerous thugs, drug dealers, back into our streets."
With images of Edwards and Obama accompanied by shots of "dangerous thugs" dealing drugs and an apparent overdose victim, the ad rises to a high level of fear-mongering, even for a campaign ad. The ad has also been described as "racist" and "race-baiting," which means something special in Louisiana, where news that white supremacists have mingled with powerful elected officials is still making headlines.
"As anyone in Louisiana knows, Southern University is the state's largest historically black university," wrote Robert Mann, a professor and former campaign staffer who helped a Democrat defeat former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke in a 1990 race for the US Senate, in an op-ed for Salon. "And, as anyone who has studied racial politics over the past decade can attest, 'thug' is a loaded word - a racial dog-whistle that means, to many, a 'black criminal.'"
Edwards, who is currently a state representative, has said he supports pretrial diversion programs and specialty courts for nonviolent offenders to reduce Louisiana's exceptionally high incarceration rate, but he never claimed he would release prisoners from jail.
Vitter's ad seems to conflate county jails with prisons - the Justice Department granted early release to 6,000 people held in federal prison over the weekend, many of them nonviolent drug offenders or set for immediate deportation - in a twisted allusion to bipartisan sentencing reform efforts in Louisiana and Washington that are actually quite popular among leading conservatives. Louisiana, after all, has the highest incarceration rate of any state in a nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, which essentially makes the state one massive human rights violation.
The ad is not the first of Vitter's to be called out for racism. In a 2010 race for US Senate, the Vitter campaign ran an ad featuring a caricature of his Democratic opponent welcoming dirt-faced "illegal aliens" into a Louisiana through a hole in a fence and offering them a check for "a lot of taxpayer money." The ad was quickly declared to be "racist" by several media outlets, and the Louisiana Hispanic Chamber of Commerce joined immigrant advocates in demanding an apology that never came. Vitter nevertheless won the election handily.
Edwards has reportedly never met Obama, but it makes sense that Vitter would attack his opponent by linking him to both "dangerous thugs" and the nation's first Black president. Last year, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy unseated Mary Landrieu, the last Louisiana Democrat to hold statewide office, with a campaign that dodged any real policy debate while tying Landrieu to the president, who is unpopular among white voters in the state.
In reality, Edwards is conservative for a Democrat and appears to have as much in common with Vitter as he does with Obama. He's anti-gun control and anti-choice (or "preaux life" in this semi-francophone state), and opposes same-sex marriage, although he has said would not require public officials to ignore the Supreme Court's landmark ruling on the issue.
A Democrat has not won statewide office in Louisiana since 2008, but fortunately for Edwards, Vitter's campaign has been marred by scandal. A private eye hired by Vitter's campaign was recently arrested while spying on political opponents, and a major scandal over the family-values candidate's habit of hiring sex workers has found new life in the blogosphere. In Louisiana, billboards and bumper stickers read "Anybody But Vitter," and some Republican voters are already rallying behind Edwards.
Democratic pollsters said Edwards was leading Vitter by about 12 points last week, but there is still one debate and plenty of potential drama to go before the November 21 runoff in Louisiana.