Democrat Edwin W. Edwards crushed former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke on Saturday to win a Louisiana governor’s election keenly watched around the nation as a referendum on race relations and voter discontent.
With 99% of the precincts reporting, Edwards, a three-time former governor, defeated Duke, a Republican state representative, by 61% to 39%. The vote totals were Edwards 1,061,233, Duke 681,278.
More than 78% of Louisiana’s 2.2 million voters cast ballots in the race, easily surpassing the previous turnout record of 69.56% set in the 1979 gubernatorial election.
Edwards’ decisive triumph capped an often bizarre contest. It pitted Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and Nazi sympathizer, against Edwards, whose last term as governor in the mid-1980s was marred by federal racketeering charges against him.
In a passionate but grave victory speech Saturday night, Edwards declared: “Tonight Louisiana became first, first to turn back the merchant of hate, the master of deceit.”
But, in chilling tones, he added: “I say to all of America tonight that there will be other places and other times where there will be other challenges by David Dukes. They, too, will be peddling bigotry and division as their elixir of false hope. . . . America be on guard!”
In his concession speech at a Baton Rouge hotel, Duke remained defiant, declaring: “The candidate may have lost, but the message goes out loud and clear across Louisiana and across this whole country.”
Duke said he had “no plans to run for any other office.” But he quickly added: “I must say, that’s at this time.”
Still, for Duke, Saturday’s result represented a stunning rebuke that saw him lose ground from the 44% of the vote he received in a 1990 challenge to U.S. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. Duke was even routed in his home base of Jefferson Parish, polling only about 40% of the vote there.
“He’s right that Louisiana voters sent a message, but it was a rejection of Duke and the politics he stands for,” said Lance Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, an anti-Duke group.
At Edwards’ headquarters in New Orleans’ Monteleone Hotel, a huge crowd spilled out from the ballroom into the lobby and out into the street beyond. News of the landslide victory ignited a Mardi Gras-like celebration, with supporters singing and dancing through the street.
Emotions ran almost as high during the day. Voters surged into polling booths to settle an election that had mesmerized, revolted and ultimately exhausted the state. Black voters came out in vast numbers in an effort to stop Duke, who based his campaign largely on such racially tinged issues as welfare reform and affirmative action.
Duke, whose background has dominated the race, voted at a local elementary school under a canopy of television lights and microphones that followed him to the edge of the booth.
As is his custom, Edwards spent Election Day out of sight, talking with precinct leaders from his headquarters after voting by absentee ballot.
The campaign drew reporters from around the world and sparked interest from around the nation.
Duke’s crusade attracted hundreds of financial contributions from California, New York, Florida and Texas. Out-of-state volunteers also traveled to Louisiana to join his effort.
Those rallying to Edwards’ side included Bob Mulholland, political director of the California Democratic Party, who on Friday flew to Louisiana to deliver a $1,000 check to the former governor’s campaign and knock on doors in the get-out-the-vote drive.
“If Duke wins, he will make people who are serious racists feel they can do a lot more public things,” Mulholland said.
Many Louisianians have been anguished by the critical shadow Duke’s ascent has cast over their state, and among his opponents the drive to see him repudiated has become as much a moral as a political necessity.
“I want to make sure you understand we’re all not full of hate, we’re all not racists,” New Orleans attorney Rick Duplantier told a reporter last week. “He’s just not what we stand for down here.”
And yet others across the state have heard echoes of their own deepest beliefs in Duke’s astringent attacks on government, affirmative action and welfare recipients, and his promise of “equal rights for everybody.”
“I want him to be governor because it’s about time for somebody to stand up for white people,” Frank Stieffel, a shipyard worker from Metairie, said as he cheered at a high-spirited Duke rally Friday night.
Such competing viewpoints dazed and divided the state to a degree unmatched by any political campaign in memory. The preserve of Huey Long and Earl Long, of fragile alliances and lasting enmities, Louisiana has long experienced politics as drama, politics as farce, but for many here this is something new: politics as tragedy. “It’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Duplantier. “It’s a civil war.”
It seemed that way when Marilyn Blappert and Hope Price, acquaintances in the New Orleans suburb of Arabi, arrived to vote Saturday morning. When Blappert asked Price if she was voting for Duke, the younger woman told her, “No. I’m not a Nazi.”
Blappert fixed Price with a cold look and replied: “Neither am I, and I’m not speaking to you.
“I’m Duke from here to here,” Blappert said, pointing from her head to her toes. “If he gets in, it will be a white Christmas.”
Throughout the campaign, many voters recoiled from both candidates.
“The only person in the state of Louisiana that Edwin Edwards could beat is David Duke,” said pollster Mark Mellman, who has worked with the state Democratic Party. “The only person in the state that David Duke could beat is Edwin Edwards.”
To a considerable extent, this election was navigated through the rear-view mirror--it focused much more on the candidates’ pasts than the state’s future.
Edwards, 64, began his political career in the late 1950s by striking a progressive note on racial questions. In 1971, after winning seats in the state Legislature and Congress, Edwards outlasted a crowded field to win the governorship. But the victory raised charges that Edwards sold state jobs in return for campaign contributions; Duke resurrected the accusations in advertisements on Friday.
Edwards easily won reelection in 1975, but the state’s two-term limit forced him to step down four years later. In 1983, he reclaimed the governorship by easily ousting his successor, Republican David Treen.
But during his third term, Edwards’ reputation for high-living and scandal began to catch up with him. He faced two federal trials on charges of selling state approvals for hospitals and nursing homes.
Although the first trial ended in a hung jury and the second in acquittal, the proceedings left an unflattering picture of the governor. In 1987, he was ousted from office by then-Democratic Rep. Buddy Roemer.
Duke’s background lacks any of Edwards’ roguish charm. Born in Oklahoma, he grew up in Louisiana, where he fell under the influence of white supremacists as a teen-ager. By the 1970s, he was active in Nazi and klan organizations.
Duke had repeatedly failed in bids for elected office starting in 1975. But in 1989, he surprised all observers by winning a seat in the state House of Representatives from a Metairie district.
Most analysts discounted Duke, 41, in this year’s gubernatorial race. But he placed a strong second to Edwards in the October primary--in the process ousting Gov. Roemer, who had recently switched to the GOP.
The shock wave rattled through the White House, which faced a drumbeat of Democratic charges that the use of racial imagery by President Bush, like President Ronald Reagan before him, had fertilized the ground for Duke. Last week, Democratic presidential candidate Paul E. Tsongas raised a cry of approval from an AFL-CIO convention by declaring: “David Duke is the son of George Bush.”
In his speech Saturday night, Edwards also linked Duke to political images used by Bush and President Reagan.
“Tonight Louisiana has won; but if the next merchant of bigotry is free of the apparent vulgar signs of the KKK and the swastika will the people simply reject as we have done?” he asked. “Or will our nation accept again the stereotype of the welfare queen? Does Willie Horton live on?”
The latter comment was a reference to a controversial Bush campaign ad in the 1988 presidential election.
In recent comments, Bush had denounced Duke and said that if he lived in Louisiana, he would vote for Edwards. For those comments, many Duke supporters brand the President a hypocrite. “Duke’s platform comes after Bush’s platform,” Kirk Landry, a Metairie hotel manager, said Friday afternoon as he took a break from campaigning for Duke. “If anybody should look in the mirror, it’s George Bush.”
Others say the President should look over his shoulder. Despite the one-sided loss Saturday, many here believe Duke may challenge Bush next year, either in the Republican presidential primaries or as a third-party candidate in November.
At Duke’s despondent election night headquarters, supporters waved signs urging him to seek the White House. And even before his hints about future political plans Saturday night, he has left little doubt that he sees an audience for his message that extends far beyond the bayous and oil fields of Louisiana.
“We are the cutting edge of the new conservative politics we will have in America,” he declared at his final campaign rally Friday night.
That may yet turn out to be. But at the moment, David Duke remains just a state representative now serving the final weeks of his term, his ambition blunted in convincing fashion by the voters of Louisiana.
Times special correspondents Patrick Thomas and Garry Boullard contributed to this story.