Stephanie Grace: Should we take Edwin Edwards seriously?

Here’s a question that’s been bugging me ever since our 86-year-old ex-con ex-governor launched his comeback bid for Congress: Are we obligated to take Edwin Edwards’ campaign seriously?

Should we marvel at the novelty but still fall back on the standard political analysis of what happens when a well-known Democrat enters a campaign otherwise dominated by Republicans? Are we to assume Edwards will not only carry the Democratic vote but drive turnout, perhaps even enough to help endangered U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu over the hump in her tight election against the congressman who’s vacating the 6th District seat, Bill Cassidy, and a few lesser-known Republicans?

Me? I’m not convinced.

Sure, Edwards, fresh out of prison, off a thankfully brief career as a reality TV star and into late-in-life new parenthood, looks good for his age. He can still muster a naughty quip and remains adept at creating a media carnival, as he did Monday when he confirmed his plans at the Baton Rouge Press Club.

He can still send a thrill up the legs of plenty of national political reporters, to the sure horror of everyone in Louisiana hoping to convince the world that the state has gotten over its corrupt ways. Edwards’ frequent reminders that he was out of office by the time he extorted private companies for help securing riverboat casino licenses and his denials of guilt, despite a verdict to the contrary, really don’t help.

Whether he holds any appeal at all, even among target Democratic constituencies, is another matter entirely. Consider some of the (admittedly overlapping) categories of voters who make up today’s Democratic base.

There are young voters, but they’ll have no memory of Edwards from his swashbuckling, populist days; in their minds, presumably, he’s just a disgraced has-been. The youngest voters who’ve experienced an Edwards election would be older than 40 by now — his third wife Trina isn’t that old — and even if they voted for the crook because it was important back in 1991, they’re unlikely to have many warm, fuzzy memories of the so called “race from hell,” Edwards’ showdown for a fourth term against Klansman and Nazi sympathizer David Duke.

African Americans normally back Democrats in large numbers, but even if Edwards remains popular among older black voters — a big if — that probably doesn’t translate to the younger generation.

And can we say a few words about women? I suppose there are some out there who still find Edwards charming, who chuckle at his go-to lines, like the one about how you’re only as old as the woman you feel. I’m betting that a whole lot more don’t.

In fact, Gov. Bobby Jindal got a laugh when he repeated the joke during an appearance in New Hampshire last week, then drew another when he noted that his wife, Supriya, doesn’t think it’s funny. I’m betting that’s not just because she’s a Republican.

There are also those who care about Democratic policies, who support, say, President Barack Obama’s push for wider health care coverage and think Republicans are demagoguing the Affordable Care Act discussion. Edwards isn’t going to earn points with those voters, now that he’s declared his opposition to the ACA, after initially embracing it. Democrats who run to the right used to do pretty well in Louisiana, but these days, conservative voters generally just go with Republicans.

And then there are Democratic partisans. They might back Edwards to make a statement, but it’s going to be hard to convince anyone that his resurgence helps the party. Rather, his candidacy creates an awkward situation for state Democrats who are trying to rebuild after a string of defeats, and a victory would create an awkward situation for House Democratic leaders (and for Obama himself) who don’t need the baggage and who were quick to distance themselves from the last ethically tainted Louisiana Democrat to serve in Congress, William Jefferson.

His presence also poses more problems than it solves for Landrieu, who once ran for governor as an antidote to Edwards’ ways. She certainly doesn’t need the association, and, honestly, she probably doesn’t need his help getting ideologically motivated voters to show up. She’s the one whose success or failure will affect the Democrats’ prospects, perhaps even control of the Senate.

Hers is the race that matters, not his, and people who follow politics understand this.

In fact, Edwards’ candidacy could actually hurt Democratic influence as much as it helps, particularly if he snags a runoff spot that would otherwise go to a Republican.

In all-GOP runoffs, Democrats have the chance to use their collective voting power to help elect the more moderate choice. In straight-up D vs. R races in Republican districts, the best they can do is cast a protest vote.

All of which leads to yet another question I’ve been pondering this week: How long until someone starts printing updated bumper stickers that read, “Vote against the crook. It’s important” ?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes.