BATON ROUGE, La. — In conservative Louisiana, where voters bucked expectations and elected a Democratic governor four years ago, this year’s gubernatorial race is testing if they’re willing to do it again — or if President Donald Trump can flip the seat. On paper, the governor’s mansion should be an easy capture for the GOP in Saturday’s runoff election, with Louisiana a deep red state and Trump considered a lock on its electoral votes next year.
But with little-known political donor Eddie Rispone as the Republican contender and nontraditional Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards on the ballot, the gubernatorial contest has reached its final days as a true tossup.
Louisiana is the last of three Southern governor’s races this year, all targets of intense interest from the GOP and from Trump. While Republicans kept the seat in Mississippi, they appear to have lost Kentucky’s governorship — though Republican Matt Bevin has yet to concede there.
Smarting from the Kentucky outcome, Trump has turned to helping Rispone in Louisiana. After holding an anti-Edwards event in the primary, he returned for a pro-Rispone rally during the state’s early voting period and has another planned Thursday. Rispone, owner of an industrial contracting firm, has spent millions on the race, hitched his candidacy to Trump and hammered a pro-Trump theme ever since.
“What Trump has done for our country has been phenomenal ... The economy is booming in the United States, but it’s not booming in Louisiana. We’re falling behind,” Rispone said at an event in Baton Rouge. “We want to do for Louisiana what Trump has done for the nation.” Edwards suggests Rispone turns repeatedly to Trump and the national outlook because he can’t stand on the strength of his state-specific issues. Rispone has dodged details of how he’d balance the budget with his proposed tax cuts and what he wants to accomplish in a constitutional convention. “Rispone’s a bad candidate, so his party is forced to call in the president to try to prop him up,” Edwards said at a campaign rally in Monroe.
The Democratic incumbent sticks to state topics, in a sort of “pretend there’s-no-national-politics” angle to a race that partisans of both stripes want to use as a talking point in 2020. But Edwards isn’t a traditional Democrat in the national mold. He’s a former Army Ranger who opposes abortion, supports gun rights and talks of his solid working relationship with Trump.
Edwards campaigns for reelection on his work with the Republican-led Legislature to stabilize state finances, saying Rispone would return Louisiana to the deficit-riddled ways of unpopular Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal. And Edwards says Rispone’s plan to “freeze” enrollment in Medicaid expansion would eventually force thousands off health insurance rolls. Rispone calls Edwards a “tax-and-spend liberal trial lawyer” who is fear-mongering and who doesn’t like the president.
Vance Gauthier, a 70-year-old contractor and Republican, cast his ballot for Rispone during the early voting period in Jefferson Parish, saying he was “looking for a change” and considered his vote in the state election a show of support for Trump. “We need a Republican back in the position,” Gauthier said. But race watchers say Trump’s influence can only stretch so far. “I don’t think Trump’s bringing more to the table than has already been brought into the campaign,” said Michael Henderson, director of Louisiana State University’s Public Policy Research Center.
Edwards supporters say Trump’s visits are actually boosting their own chances, helping to turn out black voters and other Democrats who skipped the primary. Melissa Toler, a 65-year-old retiree who voted early in New Orleans, chose Edwards “because he’s the best candidate, the most qualified, and the most reasonable.” She said Trump’s visits to Louisiana stirred up interest. “I’m a registered independent and he whips me up, not in a good way,” Toler said.
Republicans also seem to be adjusting their outreach in response to the limits on Trump’s ability to flip the Louisiana governor’s seat. GOP-backed TV ads that at one point seemed to focus entirely on the president have shifted in part to state issues, with attack ads about Edwards’ handling of flood recovery work and coastal restoration contracting.
Meanwhile, in New Orleans and other cities with high concentrations of African American voters, a wave of ads says Rispone’s tight ties with Trump are a reason to vote for Edwards. While Edwards sidesteps direct criticism of the president, the Louisiana Democratic Party posted ads on Facebook declaring: “If Rispone wins, Trump wins” and asking voters to “keep hate out of Louisiana” by supporting Edwards. The anti-Trump messaging by outside groups and Edwards’ own grassroots outreach effort to black voters appear to be having an effect.
The RNC's investment into the race comes as grassroots efforts to reach black voters appear to be having an effect.
African American turnout during the early voting period jumped significantly above primary levels, a critical piece of Edwards’ strategy to win a second term. In addition to enthusiasm among black voters, Edwards also needs crossover support from some Republicans and independents. To help him meet that benchmark, Edwards is reaching out to backers of Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the primary’s third-place finisher. While Abraham endorsed Rispone, he’s done little to assist with Rispone’s campaign. The GOP also is targeting Abraham’s voters, setting both of Trump’s rallies in north Louisiana, where Abraham lives and saw strong support.