NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Democrats in Louisiana rejoiced as they reclaimed the governor's mansion for the first time in eight years, while the state's GOP leader insisted "our Republican brand is strong" even amid the defeat of a one-time political powerhouse, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter.
John Bel Edwards' victory in Saturday's runoff election was once-unthinkable in the conservative state and a stunning turn of events for Vitter, who started his campaign nearly two years ago as the race's front-runner. With his 12-percentage point loss, Vitter announced he wouldn't seek re-election to the Senate in 2016.
Edwards' win offered a rare pick-up of a governor's seat for Democrats in the conservative Deep South, but Republican leaders insisted it was a one-time fluke that didn't suggest the GOP was on the ropes in Louisiana.
Republican Party of Louisiana Chairman Roger Villere pointed to victories for lieutenant governor and attorney general and gains in the state Legislature.
"Make no mistake, Louisiana is a deep red state and our Republican brand is strong," Villere said in a statement lamenting a "disappointing result in the gubernatorial race."
The Democratic victory was as much about Vitter's flaws as a candidate as it was about Edwards' strengths.
Edwards painted the race as a referendum on Vitter's character and suggested the U.S. senator didn't measure up in such a competition. Edwards, who started the campaign as a little-known lawmaker from a rural parish, focused on his West Point degree and military resume, and he pledged a bipartisan leadership style.
"The people have chosen hope over scorn, over negativity and over distrust of others," Edwards said in his victory speech, before leading a second-line parade with a jazz band through the French Quarter hotel ballroom.
In the final days, Vitter sought to rally Republican voters by drawing policy distinctions with Edwards and making Syrian refugee resettlement an issue in the state campaign. But it didn't work.
"I've lost one political campaign in my life, tonight and ironically it's the campaign and the political effort I am most proud of," Vitter told supporters.
The rebuke from Louisiana voters will create an open Senate seat for the 2016 election, as Vitter announced he wouldn't seek re-election to Congress. Several Republicans already have said they're interested in running for the position, including U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming, among others.
Democrats were ecstatic as Edwards defied expectations that only a Republican could win statewide in Louisiana. He thanked supporters who "believed we could confound the conventional wisdom that this victory just couldn't happen."
"It did happen," he said.
Rather than a race about the state's deep financial troubles, the contest for governor largely became about Vitter, who has been in elected office, first as a state lawmaker and then in Congress, for more than 20 years.
Vitter began the election cycle nearly two years ago as the clear favorite. He stockpiled cash for the campaign, dwarfing all competitors. And with a campaign operation that has helped him and his allies to steamroll opponents over the years, he appeared nearly unbeatable.
But Vitter was hit with repeated attacks for a 2007 prostitution scandal in which he apologized for a "serious sin" after he was linked through phone records to Washington's "D.C. Madam."
He had trouble uniting Republicans after a blistering primary competition in which Vitter trashed two GOP rivals and received heavy criticism for his scorched-earth political style. And his campaign was accused of ethical improprieties after allegations it secretly recorded political opponents. Vitter's negatives with voters shot up in the polls.
The U.S. senator also was hampered by high disapproval ratings for his fellow Republican, outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is blamed for the state's financial problems.
"John Bel Edwards' victory shows that Louisiana has turned the page on David Vitter's scandals and eight years of Bobby Jindal's failed economic policies," the Democratic National Committee said in a statement.
Edwards benefited from a primary in which he largely escaped attacks while the Republicans slammed each other. He capitalized on voters' apparent unease with Vitter and built a campaign on personal integrity.
In speeches, he pledged: "I will be honest with you. I will never embarrass you."