David Duke vs. Edwin Edwards: A 1991 election reflection
For politically minded Louisianians, the period from Oct. 19 to Nov. 16, 1991, was a prolonged nightmare, an ordeal akin to watching a hurricane build in the Gulf of Mexico and waiting to see where it will strike. David Duke, the white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader, had elbowed past Gov. Buddy Roemer in the October primary to get into the gubernatorial runoff a month later with three-time former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards. The contest pitted Duke, a Republican, against a Democrat who had winked at rumors of a fast-and-loose lifestyle involving, among other things, women and gambling. In what many saw as a lose-lose proposition, Edwards won with slightly more than 61 percent of the vote.
Both men have left electoral politics, but not without a shot at a last hurrah. Edwards, who lives in Gonzales with his third wife and their young son, ran for Congress in 2014. Duke, who lives in Mandeville, was one of two dozen candidates vying to succeed U.S. Sen. David Vitter last year. Both lost.
- The 1991 campaign inspired this memorable pro-Edwards bumper sticker: “Vote for the crook: It’s important.”
- In an attempt to inject some humor into an anxious situation, Edwards sought to put distance between himself and the former KKK leader when he said, “The only thing we have in common is that we both have been wizards beneath the sheets.”
- President George H.W. Bush said he could never support Duke, even though the candidate was a fellow Republican.
- Both men were later convicted of federal crimes. For a time, they were in Texas prisons about 270 miles apart: Edwards was in Fort Worth, and Duke was incarcerated outside Big Spring.
- Edwards had been found guilty in 2000 of extorting nearly $3 million from companies that applied for casino licenses during his last term in office. He was convicted on 17 counts of racketeering, mail and wire fraud, conspiracy and money-laundering.
- Duke pleaded guilty to bilking his financial supporters and cheating on his income taxes.
- The 2000 trial was not Edwards’ first time as a defendant in federal court. He was acquitted of bribery charges in a 1986 case in which he and four other men were charged with taking nearly $2 million in exchange for preferential treatment for companies that dealt with state hospitals.
- In his book “Cross to Bear,” longtime Louisiana political observer John Maginnis offered this take on the 1991 contest: Edwards held his base in the primary while Duke chewed up Roemer’s, then picked up the pieces in the runoff as Duke emerged as an unacceptable choice. Consequently, Maginnis concluded, Edwards’ victory was a fluke.
Neither Duke nor Edwards are significant factors in Louisiana politics today, but few have forgotten that memorable 1991 race, which even in Louisiana — a state that embraces its colorful politics — was seen by many as an out-and-out embarrassment. Still, it offered an interesting glimpse into the mood of voters. Even though Duke lost, he won more than 60 percent of the white vote, proving that his strongly conservative, anti-government statements had found a receptive audience. Twenty-five years later, in a state that had become much more Republican, these voters were receptive to Donald Trump’s message and helped him carry Louisiana in the presidential election.