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Insight: Are the politics of Obamacare changing in the South?

Cracks are starting to show in the wall of Southern opposition to Medicaid expansion

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

After Obamacare made its way through Congress in 2009, triggering the Tea Party rebellion, Republican-controlled Southern statehouses became a redoubt of opposition to what critics saw as meddlesome socialist overreach.

ChickenFriedPolitics editor Rich Shumate

When, three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Obama administration couldn’t force states to enact a key Obamacare provision — expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income residents — most Southern states took advantage of the decision and didn’t.

Today, nine of the 14 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are in the South, leaving more than 2.3 million low-income Southerners who would qualify for Medicaid without health care coverage, according to researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But there are some signs that the blanket opposition to expanding Medicaid in the South may be retreating, albeit slightly and slowly.

Louisiana and Virginia expanded Medicaid after electing Democratic governors in 2017. In Arkansas and Kentucky, where expansion passed under Democratic governors, it has endured despite their replacement by more skeptical Republicans.

In Florida and Oklahoma, petition drives are underway to put expansion on the ballot in 2020, doing an end-run around recalcitrant GOP leaders. And in Mississippi, a Democrat is trying to use expansion as a wedge issue to end a 16-year Republican lock on the governor’s office.

In states with expanded Medicaid, low-income people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $17,000 for an individual — can get coverage. In states without expansion, the income limit for a family of three is just under $9,000; single people are excluded entirely.

Most of the singles and families who are not eligible for traditional Medicaid don’t make enough money to get the tax credits they need to buy insurance on the Obamacare insurance exchanges. According to estimates from Kaiser, 92 percent of all Americans who fall into this coverage gap live in Southern states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, including nearly 800,000 people in Texas, 450,000 in Florida, 275,000 in Georgia, and 225,000 in North Carolina.

The federal government pays 90 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion; states must pick up the rest. Republican leaders who oppose the idea have balked at making a financial commitment to such an open-ended entitlement, which Congress could change at any time.

But that argument didn’t hold in Virginia after Democrats campaigning on expansion nearly took control of the legislature in 2017. When expansion came up for a vote, 18 House Republicans who survived that blue wave joined Democrats to pass it.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, who issued an executive order on his first day in office to expand Medicaid, is now running for re-election touting that decision; voters will give their verdict in October.

In Mississippi, Attorney General Jim Hood is also making expanded Medicaid the centerpiece of his gubernatorial campaign this year, arguing that his state, with the nation’s highest poverty rate, is cutting off its nose to spite its face by refusing to extend coverage to people who would benefit from it.

In Arkansas and Kentucky, where Democratic governors managed to push through expansion in 2014, the Republicans who replaced them have left the programs essentially intact, although they have fiddled at the edges by imposing premiums and work requirements on recipients. (Federal judges have blocked those changes.)

Die-hard Obamacare opponents have not been able to scuttle the program in either state — even in Arkansas, where the program has to be reauthorized annually by a three-fourths majority in both houses of the legislature.

In Florida and Oklahoma, supporters of expansion — including groups representing doctors, nurses and hospitals — are trying to put constitutional amendments expanding Medicaid coverage on the ballot in 2020.

Those ballot measures will be a key test of whether the public mood is more sympathetic to the idea of expansion than are the states’ conservative leaders, who have argued that the program is unaffordable and discourages people from seeking employment to secure health care.

However, the strategy of pursuing ballot initiatives is of limited use in the South because among states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, only Florida, Oklahoma and Mississippi allow the public to put measures on the ballot via petition. Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina do not.

In Florida, the ballot measure will also need to get approval from 60 percent of the voters to pass.

The question to be answered this year and next is whether the fiscal and philosophical arguments against expansion will hold against the argument that low-income Southerners — rural and urban, black and white — deserve health care coverage and will benefit from it, in spite of its association with Obamacare.

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Legal abortion has become fault line in Kentucky’s Democratic primary for governor

State Rep. Rocky Adkins breaks with much of his party by supporting bill banning most abortions after a heartbeat is detected

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

LOUISVILLE (CFP) — Rocky Adkins, the former Democratic leader of the Kentucky House, is among America’s rarest political species — a Democrat who opposes legal abortion. And that stance has become a clear fault line in the Democratic race for governor.

Kentucky State Rep. Rocky Adkins

Adkins is running in the May 20 primary against two Democrats who support legal abortion — Attorney General Andy Beshear and former State Auditor Adam Edelen — and the issue has taken on prominence not usually found in Democratic intra-party skirmishes.

“I am pro-life,” said Adkins, who represents a rural House district in eastern Kentucky, said during a recent debate. “You express the views of your constituents that you represent in the legislature for your votes, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Adkins is a member of the legislature’s Pro-Life Caucus. Earlier this year, he was one of 10 Democrats in the House who voted for Kentucky’s “heartbeat bill,” which would ban most abortions once the baby’s heartbeat can be detected.

That measure was signed into law by the man these Democrats all hope to replace, Republican Governor Matt Bevin, who has made his opposition to abortion a feature of his re-election campaign.

Edelen has denounced the new law as “an experiment by the radical right to eliminate this protection for women.” Beshear, who describes himself as “pro-choice,” has refused as attorney general to defend the new law against a legal challenge.

When the issue came up in a recent debate, Beshear observed that “the only person who is excited we’re having this conversation is Matt Bevin. This is all he’s going to talk about in the general election.”

A Pew Research Center study found that 57 percent of Kentuckians thought abortion should be illegal in most cases, while only 36 percent supported legal abortion. Only four states — Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and West Virginia — are more pro-life.

Pew also found less support for abortion among people living in rural areas than in cities or suburbs. Edelen is from Lexington and Beshear is from Louisiville; Adkins is from Sandy Hook, population 600.

However, the issue of abortion cuts across Democratic politics in Kentucky in a way not seen in much of the rest of the country. When the heartbeat bill came up in the House earlier this year, only a minority of the Democratic caucus actively opposed the measure. Nineteen Democrats voted no, 10 voted yes — and 10 absented themselves rather than cast a vote.

The abortion crosscurrents are also visible in the Democratic race for governor.  Beshear’s running mate, Jacqueline Coleman, described herself as a “pro-life Democrat” when she ran for the legislature in 2014 from a rural seat, though she now says she supports a woman’s right to choose an abortion. By contrast, Adkins’s running mate, Stephanie Horne, who is from Louisville, supports legal abortion.

Edelen and his running mate, Gill Holland, both support legal abortion, which Edelen has been using in the campaign to draw a contrast with Beshear and Adkins.

While the general election politics in Kentucky would clearly favor a candidate who doesn’t support legal abortion, Democratic primary politics are perhaps another matter. Adkins has not emphasized the issue during the campaign, has said he would “follow the Constitution” and has tied his opposition to abortion to his support for pre-K funding and bills to strengthen adoption and foster care.

“I’ve also said that we need to put warm food on the table and a roof over these babies’ heads when they’re born,” Adkins said.

Should Adkins triumph in the primary and then win the general election, he would join Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who is running for re-election this fall, as the only Southern governors who oppose legal abortion.

Mississippi Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who is also running for governor in 2019, is also an abortion opponent.

The two other Southern Democratic governors, Roy Cooper in North Carolina and Ralph Northam in Virginia, both support legal abortion.

Cooper recently vetoed a bill that would have made it a crime for abortion doctors to kill babies born alive during an abortion procedure, saying a new law was not necessary.

Northam last year supported a bill that would have made it easier for women to obtain abortions in the third trimester, which failed to gain approval in the legislature.

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U.S. Senator John Kennedy won’t run for Louisiana governor in 2019

Kennedy would have been formidable obstacle to re-election of Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — U.S. Senator John Kennedy will not run for Louisiana’s governorship in 2019, opting not to make what would have been a formidable challenge to Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards’s prospects for re-election.

“It is such an honor to represent the people of Louisiana in the United States Senate. Right now, that’s where I think I can do the most good,” he said in a December 3 statement announcing his decision.

U.S. Senator John Kennedy

The outspoken Kennedy also offered a blistering critique of the condition of state government back in the Pelican State.

“I hope someone runs for Governor who understands that Louisiana state government does not have to be a big, slow, dumb, wasteful, sometimes corrupt, spend-money-like-it-was-ditchwater, anti-taxpayer, top down institution,” he said.

“I love Louisiana as much as I love my country, and the people of my state deserve a state government as good as they are.”

Kennedy, who has won six statewide elections, was the most prominent name among Republicans considering the governor’s race, and his decision not to run is good news for Edwards, who is trying to win re-election as a Democrat in an increasingly Republican state.

The only Republican in the race so far is Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham of Alto has also said he is considering entering the contest and will announce his decision by January 1.

Kennedy, 67, was elected to the Senate in 2016 on his third try after a long career in state politics. He spent 17 years as state treasurer and served in the administrations of governors Buddy Roemer and Mike Foster. He switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 2007, while treasurer.

During his time in the Senate, Kennedy has become known as one of the chamber’s most quotable members, offering often blunt and colorful analogies.

He once described Facebook’s behavior as “getting into the foothills of creepy,” and after sexual harassment charges rocked Hollywood, said that he didn’t know how movies were getting made “because it looks like they’re all busy molesting each other.”

Taking issue with the practice of credit reporting companies to charge consumers for protecting their information, Kennedy said, “I don’t pay extra in a restaurant to prevent the waiter from spitting in my food.”

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards

Edwards, 52, won the governorship in 2015 by defeating then-U.S. Senator David Vitter, and is the only Democrat to hold a governorship in the Deep South. Kennedy was then elected to Vitter’s seat.

In the 2015 campaign, Edwards benefited from the unpopularity of the outgoing Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, as well as personal issues surrounding Vitter, who publicly admitted to patronizing prostitutes.

This time around, Republicans will make Edwards’s record the issue, including tax hikes and Medicaid expansion that he pushed through the legislature and a controversial program to reduce prison sentences for non-violent offenders.

In Louisiana, all candidates for governor run against each other in a so-called “jungle” primary in October, with the two top vote-getters advancing to a November runoff if no one gets a majority. The Republican field will most likely be competing for the second spot against Edwards.

Louisiana is one of four states that elect governors in off years. Neighboring Mississippi will also have a governor’s election in 2019.

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Democrats roll in state elections in Virginia

Northam elected governor; Democrats sweep statewide races and make big gains in legislature

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

RICHMOND (CFP) — In a huge night for Democrats, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam easily defeated Republican Ed Gillespie to claim Virginia’s governorship.

Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam

Democrats also won two other statewide offices, and the GOP lost its once-comfortable majority in the lower house of the state legislature, a stunning feat that included election of the nation’s first-ever transgender legislator.

Northam’s 54-45 percent victory over Gillespie in the November 7 vote was nearly twice as large as Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory over Donald Trump in 2016 and was built on 20-point victories in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and Richmond.

Holding the governorship in Virginia is a boon for Democrats frustrated by a string of heartbreaking defeats in special and off-year elections since Trump took the White House. The result, however, was a hold, not a takeaway, and it came in the lone Southern state Clinton carried.

Speaking to jubilant supporters in Fairfax, Northam offered a thinly veiled rebuke to the president’s take-no-prisoners style of politics.

“It was said that the eyes of the nation are on the commonwealth,” Northam said. “Today, Virginians have answered and have spoken. Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry and to end the politics that have torn this country apart.”

After Northam was declared the winner, Trump, visiting South Korea, sent a tweet taking issue with Gillespie’s decision to distance himself from the president: “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.”

The specter of Trump hovered over the governor’s race. Gillespie did not invite the president to cross the Potomac to campaign for him, angering some in his party’s pro-Trump base, but Northam still tried to hang Trump around Gillespie’s neck, accusing the GOP nominee of figuratively “standing right next” to the president, even if literally he had not.

Ed Gillespie

In his concession speech, Gillespie thanked his campaign workers and supporters but did not mention the president.

“I felt called to serve. I hope I’ll discern what (God’s) calling is for me next,” Gillespie said.

Gillespie’s loss is his second statewide defeat in four years. In 2014, he challenged Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner, coming to within 18,000 votes of beating him.

In the race for lieutenant governor, Democrat Justin Fairfax, an attorney and former federal prosecutor from the D.C. suburbs, defeated Republican State Senator Jill Vogel. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring also won his re-election race over Republican John Adams.

Perhaps the most shocking result of the night came in the races for the House of Delegates, the lower house of Virginia’s legislature. Republicans entered election day holding a 66-34 majority; Democrats ousted at least 11 incumbents and picked up three open seats that the GOP had held.

With five races still too close to call, Democrats had 48 seats and Republicans 47. Of the five races left outstanding, Republicans were ahead in three and Democrats in two. If those results hold, the chamber would be evenly divided, 50-50.

In four of the five House races still to be decided, the leads are less than 125 votes, making recounts likely.

Virginia Delegate-Elect Danica Roem

Among the winners was Danica Roem, a transgender woman who won a seat in Prince William County by defeating veteran GOP Delegate Bob Marshall, a 14-term social conservative who had described himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and insisted on referring to Roem with male pronouns.

When Roem takes office, she will be the the first transgender person in the United States to be elected and serve in a state legislature while openly acknowledging her gender identity.

Northam’s win in the South’s lone off-year governor’s election gives Democrats three of the region’s 14 governorships, with Northam joining Louisiana Governor Jon Bell Edwards and North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. The incumbent Democrat in Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe, was barred by state law from seeking re-election.

Northam, 58, comes to the governorship after 10 years in elected office, first as a state senator and then lieutenant governor.  A former U.S. Army doctor, he has practiced pediatric neurology at a children’s hospital in Norfolk since 1992.

With his win, Democrats have now won three of the last four governor’s races in Virginia, a once solidly Republican state that has trended Democratic in recent years, primarily due to an influx of new voters into the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

Democrat John Bel Edwards wins Louisiana governorship

Edwards defeats GOP U.S. Senator David Vitter, who announces he won’t seek re-election

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

louisiana mugNEW ORLEANS (CFP) — Democratic State Rep. John Bel Edwards will be the next governor of Louisiana after defeating Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter in a contentious runoff.

In his concession speech, Vitter announced that he will not seek re-election to  the Senate next year, opening a seat Republicans will have to defend to keep their majority.

Louisiana Governor-elect John Bel Edwards

Louisiana Governor-elect John Bel Edwards

Edwards took 56 percent in the November 21 vote, to just 44 percent for Vitter, easily winning a race few people thought Edwards could win when he announced his long-shot candidacy in 2013.

“The people have chosen hope over scorn, over negativity and over the distrust of others,” Edwards said at his victory party in a New Orleans hotel.

“I did not create this breeze of hope that’s blowing across our beautiful and blessed state, but I did catch it. And I thank God I did.”

Edwards, 49, an attorney and former Army Ranger from Amite, was the minority leader in the Louisiana House, where he was a strong critic of Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, particularly over Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid.

However, Edwards ran a race tailored to culturally conservative Louisiana–opposing abortion and supporting gun rights–to become the first Democrat to win a statewide race in seven years.

He will be one of just three Democratic governors in the 14 Southern states. The others are in Virginia and West Virginia.

U.S. Senator David Vitter

U.S. Senator David Vitter

Vitter, 54, started out the race for governor heavily favored. But he was dogged by two Republican challengers in the state’s all-party “jungle” primary and started the runoff far behind Edwards, who had the united support of Democrats.

So bitter was the primary that one of Vitter’s two Republican opponents, Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, crossed party lines to endorse Edwards, angering the state’s GOP establishment. The other, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, sat out the runoff rather than supporting Vitter.

The senator was burdened both by Jindal’s marked unpopularity and continued fallout over a 2007 scandal in which he was linked to a Washington prostitution ring.

In the closing days of the campaign, Vitter tried to make the possible resettlement of Syrian refugees in Louisiana an issue, but it was not enough to catch Edwards, despite the state’s strong GOP tendencies.

“I have lost one political campaign in my life–tonight–and, ironically, it’s the campaign and the political effort I am most proud of, particularly these last few weeks, fighting shoulder to shoulder with you,” Vitter said during his concession speech at a hotel in suburban New Orleans.

Vitter then announced to his supporters that he would not seek re-election next year, ending his 23-year political career that took him from the State House in Baton Rouge to the halls of Congress.

“I had decided when I decided to make this race … that I wanted to pursue new challenges outside the Senate, no matter what,” he said. “I’d reached my personal term limit.”

While Republicans would be favored to keep the seat, Vitter’s decision gives Democrats their best chance outside of Florida of flipping a Southern Senate seat in 2016.

 

U.S Senator David Vitter airs mea culpa ad in Louisiana governor’s race

Vitter admits he “failed family,” as his opponent accuses him of choosing “prostitutes over patriots”

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

louisiana mugNEW ORLEANS (CFP) — Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter has gone on the air with a personal mea culpa in the Louisiana governor’s race after his Democratic opponent accused him in an ad of choosing “prostitutes over patriots.”

U.S. Senator David Vitter

U.S. Senator David Vitter

The new ad from Vitter — who acknowledged committing unspecified “sin” in 2007 after being publicly linked to a Washington, D.C. prostitution ring — begins with the line, “Fifteen years ago, I failed my family.”

“But I found forgiveness and love,” Vitter says, as a video plays of him sitting around a dining room table with his family. “I learned that our falls aren’t what define us but rather how we get up, accept responsibility and earn redemption.”

“You know me. I’m a fighter, and as your governor, I’ll get up every day to fight for you.”

Vitter’s new ad appeared just days after his Democratic opponent in the November 21 runoff, State Rep. John Bel Edwards, went up with a hard-hitting ad touting his military experience and drawing a sharp contrast between himself and Vitter.”

“The choice for governor couldn’t be more clear — John Bel Edwards, who answered our country’s call and served as a Ranger in the 82nd Airborne Division, or David Vitter, who answered a prostitute’s call minutes after he skipped a vote honoring 28 soldiers who gave their lives in defense of our freedom.”

The ad ends with the tagline, “David Vitter chose prostitutes over patriots. Now the choice is yours.”

The vote raised in the Edwards campaign ad was taken in 2001. After the prostitution scandal broke six years later, media reports of telephone records linked to the prostitution ring showed Vitter making a phone call to a D.C. madam at the time he was missing the vote.

Although the prostitution scandal is nearly eight years old and Vitter won re-election to the Senate in 2010 despite the lurid headlines, the controversy has continued to dog him in the governor’s race, particularly after a former prostitute claimed that Vitter got her pregnant and encouraged her to have an abortion. She said she refused and gave the child up for adoption.

Vitter has vehemently denied the allegations.

Vitter trailed Edwards by 17 points in the state’s all-party “jungle” primary in October. However, the Republican vote was split between Vitter and two other major Republican contenders, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne, while Edwards was the only major Democrat in the race.

Dardenne has since crossed party lines to endorse Edwards in the runoff; Angelle has so far remained neutral.

Watch the new ad from U.S. Senator David Vitter:
Watch the ad from State Rep. John Bel Edwards:

Republican Matt Bevin wins Kentucky governor’s race

Bevin’s victory over Attorney General Jack Conway is another takeaway for the GOP in the South

♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor

kentucky mugLOUISVILLE (CFP) — Just a year after losing a bruising primary battle against U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Louisville businessman and Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin has won the Kentucky governorship, taking away one of the Democrats’ three remaining governor’s seats in the South.

Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin

Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin

Unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s office showed Bevin with 53 percent to 44 percent for Democratic  Attorney General Jack Conway in the November 3 vote.

The win marks a remarkable feat for Bevin, 48, who jumped into the race right before the filing deadline, won the Republican primary by less than 100 votes and trailed Conway in the polls throughout the general election.

“What an extraordinary night this is,” Bevin told cheering supporters in Louisville. “This is a chance for a fresh start, it truly is, and we desperately need it.”

Bevin also issued a call for unity, saying, “We are one Kentucky–black, white, rural, urban, at both ends of the socio-economic spectrum.”

A turning point in the race may have come in September, when Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples on religious grounds.

Bevin embraced Davis’s fight, meeting with her and calling on Democratic Governor Steve Beshear to issue an executive order relieving Davis of the responsibility for signing marriage licenses.

Republicans had a good night across the board in the Bluegrass State, taking five of the seven statewide constitutional offices, with the attorney general’s race too close to call. The only outright Democratic winner was Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who also challenged McConnell unsuccessfully in 2014.

Bevin’s running mate for lieutenant governor, Jenean Hampton, a Tea Party activist and former Air Force captain, is the first African-American ever elected to statewide office in Kentucky.

Although the commonwealth has become reliably Republican at the federal level, Bevin is just the second Republican in the last 44 years to be elected governor. Beshear was term limited.

With the GOP’s takeaway in Kentucky, Democrats hold governorships in only two of the 14 Southern states, Virginia and West Virginia, with a race in Louisiana to be decided in a November 21 runoff between Democratic State Rep. John Bel Edwards and Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter.

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