GONZALES — In the final days of the Republican-on-Republican runoff in the state House 88 election, the battle to establish in voters' minds who would make the more conservative and trustworthy candidate is reaching a fever pitch.
The campaign for Brandon Trosclair has stepped up attacks on opponent Kathy Edmonston's record as a one-term member of a state education panel, calling her the mouthpiece the governor and claiming she is beholden to trial lawyers.
Meanwhile, a Louisiana PAC funded largely by trial lawyers has blasted Trosclair, through online videos and mail-outs, over his arrest in the mid-2000's.
Trosclair led a three-person primary on Oct. 12 over Edmonston and former U.S. Army combat veteran Ryan Beissinger, holding a nearly 1,070-vote lead over Edmonston, the second-place finisher.
Trosclair and Edmonston are heading to the Nov. 16 runoff. Early voting ends Saturday.
Both Trosclair and Edmonston said they favor a smaller, more efficient government and generally hold conservative positions likely to appeal to many voters in the House district covering parts of the Prairieville, St. Amant and Gonzales areas in Ascension Parish.
In a forum last month, Trosclair accused Edmonston, a state party official who won the Republican Party's endorsement, of accepting help from Napoleon PAC, Gumbo PAC and trial lawyers, including from the firm of former Republican state Sen. Jody Amedee, a plaintiff's attorney based in Gonzales.
At the time, Napoleon PAC and Gumbo PAC, outside groups that make expenditures on races independent of candidates' campaigns, hadn't spent on the House race. The House 88 seat is held by outgoing Republican state Rep. Johnny Berthelot and hadn't been a key seat to further Republican control of the House.
Last month, however, Trosclair and his campaign manager, J Hudson, promised that outside spending would be coming, and it has in some cases.
Napoleon PAC, which has had heavy donations from plaintiffs' firms in recent election cycles but also from a state teacher's union, has aired a Facebook video and mailed out fliers questioning Trosclair over his 2006 arrest on a misapplication of funds count stemming from his time as a contractor and as well as related litigation.
"Trosclair says trust him. His record says we shouldn't," the Napoleon PAC video says.
The criminal charge was dropped after Trosclair completed a pretrial diversion program. Trosclair says the incident was the result of an unfortunate situation and that he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Campaign finance reports filed after the Oct. 12 primary show Edmonston received $2,500 from Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello, a major plaintiffs' law firm heavily involved in legacy oil cases that have drawn the ire of the industry and business lobby.
"The trial lawyers have their candidate in this race, and it's Kathy Edmonston. The people who sue the oil and gas industry and keep auto insurance high have one candidate, and it's Kathy Edmonston," Hudson said in an interview Wednesday.
Trosclair's attacks come amid a pitched fundraising battle between trial lawyers and the business lobby in statewide and some regional judicial races as an array of coastal and legacy lawsuits wind their way through the courts and may be ripe for key decisions in the next term.
Edmonston countered that Trosclair has been cherry-picking donations she's received from longtime personal friends in Ascension who are also lawyers. That support, she said, doesn't affect her view that litigation from the plaintiffs' bar should be "reined in."
"There is nothing between me and any trial lawyers, I can assure you," she said.
She also pointed to other donors who are supporters of conservative causes in Ascension Parish. Among them are Al and Theresa Robert, the restaurateurs and big landowners who are active in the local Republican Party and parish politics. Together, they gave Edmonston $3,000 combined.
Trey Ourso, who manages Napoleon and the Gumbo PACs, said he wasn't even paying attention to the House 88 race and didn't know much about either of the candidates until Trosclair began making claims about the PACs and drawing attention to the race.
"Ask, you shall receive," Ourso said.
The Gumbo PAC is exclusively focused on Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Edmonston, who has sent her own mailouts raising Trosclair's old criminal charge, said she didn't know anything about Napoleon PAC's involvement until she got one of its fliers in the mail.
Trosclair has also tried to amplify his critiques of Edmonston's time on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, charging in mail-outs that she didn't halt the introduction of Common Core curriculum standards a few years ago. He has also attacked her opposition to letter grades for school accountability scores.
Trosclair, who says he opposed Common Core "100%" and supported school letter grades, has gotten endorsements and campaign funding from the Louisiana Association for Business and Industry, other business groups and Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby. They have been backers of stronger accountability measures and the charter school movement generally but also Common Core.
Edmonston, who works in Ascension public schools, said she remains an opponent of Common Core. She said she was unable to halt standards on BESE because she was outnumbered by other members backed by Grigsby and others supporting the standards.
She was the only vote against it in a key March 2016 BESE vote. She said she did oppose school letter grades because she believes the entire system needs to be revamped but supports accountability measures that don't punish students and teachers.
The Common Core education standards, which were pushed by National Governors Association but happened under then-President Barack Obama, have remained controversial among conservatives and some parents.