BATON ROUGE, La. -- In picking apart Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ reelection victory in the red state of Louisiana, analysts talk of cross-party voters, the get-out-the-vote effort in New Orleans and the Donald Trump factor. But in a year when both the LSU Tigers and New Orleans Saints appear headed to the playoffs, did Edwards also get an edge from the football factor?
“I think when the people are feeling good, that probably helps an incumbent. And in Louisiana, football is probably more important to helping people feel good than the economy,” said Jim Engster, the host of a Baton Rouge radio talk show and owner and publisher of Tiger Rag, which covers LSU sports.
And fans of Louisiana’s two premier football teams definitely have reason to feel good.
LSU shot to the top of the College Football Playoff rankings after its victory over archnemesis Alabama a week ago, and remains undefeated after Saturday night’s win against Ole Miss — shortly before Edwards secured his own victory against Republican challenger Eddie Rispone.
The Saints have notched eight wins so far this season, finding ways to stay atop the NFC South even as record-setting quarterback Drew Brees was sitting out five games with a thumb injury.
A former high school quarterback and avid football fan, Edwards’ enthusiasm for the teams has mirrored that of rank-and-file fans — only with more access to coaches and players than the average joe in the cheap seats.
The Democratic governor exchanges text messages and has developed a friendship with LSU Coach Ed Orgeron and attends some team practices. And he has flaunted his fandom on the campaign trail.
Edwards appeared in a public service announcement with Brees to promote veteran-owned businesses. Orgeron introduced Edwards at a business summit, showing video of the governor throwing passes to LSU players, and later introduced him at a campaign fundraiser. Edwards greeted Orgeron and the entire LSU team when they arrived home after defeating Alabama. The video circulated on social media.
“I think it was brilliant to go do that,” said Bob Mann, a Louisiana State University mass communication professor and former aide to many Democratic elected officials. “It just had a ring of authenticity to it.”
The football-themed promotions in the middle of a hotly contested election drew criticism from Republicans, who said Edwards sought to capitalize off the popularity of sports teams that shouldn’t be involved in politics. Rispone also publicly supported LSU and held campaign tailgating events, but he didn’t have the special access of Edwards.
Edwards supporters suggested the governor simply loves the game, with a wink and nod to the added benefit that videos showing him with Orgeron and Brees might have for his reelection bid.
Engster said the exchanges make Edwards seem like a regular Louisiana guy, a hunter and family man who loves football.
“Put it together and it might have been enough to help make a difference,” Engster said. “Every little bit helps.”