Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco defeated conservative Indian-American Bobby Jindal with 52 percent of the vote in a runoff election Saturday, dashing the Republican Party's hopes for a sweep of the Deep South.
"The voters got energized," Blanco, 60, said in her victory speech.
The win puts the Louisiana governorship back in the Democratic column for the first time since Gov. Mike Foster was elected eight years ago. Term limits prevented Foster from running again, but he had thrown his support behind Jindal, his 32-year-old protege and a Republican whiz kid who served as an assistant health secretary under President Bush.
Blanco won with 52 percent, or 730,737 votes, to Jindal's 48 percent, or 676,180. More than half of Louisiana's 2.7 million registered voters cast ballots, a higher turnout than predicted.
Jindal had led is most polls leading up to Saturday's election, but the number had been close. The week before the election, more than one in 10 voters still was undecided.
In the election, Blanco carried 53 parishes to Jindal's 11 in the unofficial voting results. She took most of her native Cajun area and swamped Jindal in New Orleans, where Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin had endorsed him instead.
"I think there was immense disappointment of the endorsement of Bobby. I think it had the effect of energizing our campaign," Blanco said.
She also gave credit for her victory to her attacks on Jindal's record as a former state health and education official and her final debate appearance, in which she tearfully recounted the death of her son when asked about the defining moment in her life.
"I've always felt or found in a big campaign, people eventually look for humanity," she said.
Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin and a Blanco supporter, said the final debate clearly delineated distinctions between Blanco and Jindal, who often sounded alike in their positions — touting tax cuts, improving economic development and continuing education reform.
"Voters made up their minds after (that) night," Jones said. "The energy came at the end when she drew hard distinctions."
Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar, would have been the first non-white elected governor in the Deep South since Reconstruction. The last was P.B.S. Pinchback, son of an emancipated slave, who served as governor for 35 days in 1872-73.
"I stand here tonight disappointed, but not discouraged," Jindal said in his concession speech late Saturday. "We made the case that the American dream is more alive in Louisiana than anywhere else in America. Something special happened here."
Republicans had hoped Jindal would give them a sweep of governorships in every Deep South state — Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina — for the first time since Reconstruction.
Blanco's victory echoed the election a year ago when Louisiana dented another Republican upswing with Democrat Mary Landrieu winning re-election to the U.S. Senate after the GOP had won control of that chamber.
"This sends a very strong signal out to the nation that the Louisiana Democratic Party basically has it together," Landrieu said at Blanco's victory party.