This article is adapted from “The Road to Hell,” the fifth episode of Slow Burn’s new season.
No other state does elections like Louisiana. The credit for that, or the blame, belongs to Edwin Edwards.
The first time he ran for governor, Edwards had to compete in three separate races: a closed Democratic primary, a Democratic runoff, and then the general election. In the days when Democrats dominated Louisiana, that last race—against a Republican also-ran—was a pointless nuisance. It was like winning the 100-meter dash at the Olympics, then having to outsprint a kid pulled from the stands to get your gold medal.
“And I didn’t like that idea. I said, well, look, let’s change it,” Edwards, now 93, told me. In the new system, all candidates—regardless of party—ran in the same primary held on the same day. If no one gained more than 50 percent of that vote, the top two finishers then went into a runoff.
Louisiana’s open primary system went into effect in 1975. Edwards cruised to reelection that year, as the Republican Party didn’t even field a candidate. But in the Reagan years, the GOP surged throughout the South. By 1991, the open primary was open in a way Edwards maybe hadn’t anticipated. It was a true two-party free-for-all.
Political writer John Maginnis had a name for that year’s governor’s race between Edwards, sitting Gov. Buddy Roemer, and David Duke.
“I call this the race from hell,” Maginnis said. “You have three very angry men, candidates for governor, and the people aren’t too happy either.”
Buddy Roemer, the sitting governor, preferred staying in to going out to meet his public. He had always been like this; Raymond Strother, the political consultant who helped Roemer win in 1987, saw it up close during that race.
“He would sit in the back of the campaign headquarters and read novels, usually mystery novels, and he wouldn’t go out and campaign,” Strother says. “We’d go to a restaurant to eat lunch, and he would sit in the back of the restaurant in a corner with his back to the room. So nobody would see him and recognize him and come over and start talking.”
Roemer’s charismatic misanthrope routine had worked out fine in 1987, and it seemed possible he could pull off the same trick in 1991. The problem for Roemer was that a lot of swing voters felt drawn to another candidate.
At first, Strother liked the focus group results he was hearing: Blue-collar Democrats said they couldn’t stand a hypothetical candidate with all of David Duke’s characteristics.
“But then as soon as they learned it was David Duke, they’d say, ‘well, that’s what politicians do.’ Or, ‘well, you know, KKK—well, he was a young man. Nazi—well, he was a young guy, college kids do stupid stuff.’ You know, whatever it was, they’d make an excuse for him.”
Roemer had won in 1987 as a conservative Democrat, but switched parties in 1991, in a misguided attempt to become a unity candidate for the state’s right-wing voters. As he struggled to hold his coalition together, Duke was finding a new way to expand his appeal.
“It’s been tough for me sometimes over the last couple of years. A lot of media attacks. But what’s made it made it better for me is that I’m a Christian,” Duke said at a fundraiser in Metairie, the heart of his legislative district. “I work hard. I believe in Christ.”
Duke invoked his Christianity far more in the governor’s race than in any of his previous campaigns. He used religion as both a shield and a sword. At a debate in September, Duke said that he’d repented for his past sins, and that those who tried to discredit him were being un-Christian.
“I’ve certainly been intolerant before in my life. But those who would condemn and point their fingers at me, I’d like them to look in their own lives and ask if they’ve never hurt a friend or changed their opinions,” he said.
Based on what the polls were saying, the governor’s race was too close to call. That’s how things looked on the outside. On the inside, there was gossip about a possible secret alliance. Roemer’s political consultant Raymond Strother heard that speculation.
“The rumor that we heard was that Edwin Edwards was encouraging and perhaps funding David Duke,” he said.
Edwards wanted revenge on Buddy Roemer after losing to him in 1987. But Edwards also knew how to play the odds. He was smart enough, the theory went, to sense that he’d have a better shot against an ex-Klansman than against the incumbent governor.
“Nobody had any proof whatsoever. But I seldom ran into anybody on either side who didn’t think that Edwards was playing funny with David Duke.”
Was Edwards playing funny with David Duke? When I asked him if he or his supporters did anything to help Duke make the runoff, he denied it.
“No, I didn’t,” Edwards said. “I didn’t do that because I didn’t think it was necessary, and I would have maybe got caught at it. So I didn’t do that. I just let him run his race. I ran mine. Roemer ran his.”
That’s as far as I got in chasing down that rumor. But I did learn something else: The Edwards campaign had a totally different secret alliance—with Clyde Holloway, the pro-life congressman who’d received the Louisiana Republican Party’s official endorsement over Duke and Roemer.
Holloway was way back in the polls, in a distant fourth, and needed cash to air commercials. One of Edwin Edwards’ closest friends, Bob d’Hemecourt, knew one of Holloway’s campaign advisers. D’Hemecourt says the two of them hatched a plan.
“Every vote that Clyde Holloway was receiving or getting was coming directly off of the sitting governor Buddy Roemer,” D’Hemecourt says. “And we would have people that were maxed out or have a lot of money that supported Edwin Edwards ask me what else they could do. I said we could get these commercials [for Holloway] on TV or radio.”
D’Hemecourt is describing an electoral double bank shot: Edwards supporters send money to Holloway. Holloway takes votes from Roemer. Roemer slides out of the runoff, and Duke slides in. “We felt we could beat David Duke substantially, and Buddy Roemer would have been a different result—don’t know if we’d have won or not,” D’Hemecourt said. He also says that he kept Edwards in the loop about all this. “His answer was: Be careful.”
When I asked Edwards about that alliance, he told me he didn’t know anything about it. Holloway’s campaign adviser, Bryan Wagner, also denied d’Hemecourt’s account in Cross to Bear, John Maginnis’ book about the 1991 campaign. Wagner died in 2018.
That said, I believe d’Hemecourt’s story. None of this would’ve been illegal, assuming the campaign contributions got reported. But it was kind of devious—a way to help David Duke without giving him direct support.
To be clear, those Holloway ads were a small drop in an enormous bucket of campaign spending. In the final days of the race, the owner of a hazardous waste recycling company spent a massive amount of money on anti-Roemer commercials, because he was angry about the governor’s environmental regulations. That ad buy was a huge deal. The Holloway ads really weren’t.
But it’s still telling that the Edwards campaign was willing to take active measures to help Duke get into the runoff.
Quin Hillyer, one of Louisiana’s most prominent anti-Duke Republicans, called the tactic “very typical of Edwin Edwards.” He also thinks Edwards is totally corrupt. (Edwards served eight years in federal prison on corruption charges; he was convicted of rigging casino licenses during his final term as governor.) “I’m not saying it’s immoral. It’s just amoral—completely without regard to the morality of trying to help David Duke get into the runoff, and whether or not that would be good or bad for the state of Louisiana,” Hillyer said of the alliance. “It was Edwin Edwards and his people at their Edwin Edwards–est.”
This was, in some ways, typical Louisiana chicanery—politics as sport, with a win-at-all-costs mentality. But Duke wasn’t a typical candidate. Maybe the Edwards camp was right that their odds were better against Duke than Roemer. But what if they were wrong? What if David Duke won?