Attorneys, oil and gas interests and dark money groups have continued to funnel millions of dollars into Louisiana’s governor’s race since the start of the runoff campaign between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Eddie Rispone, and the political organizations receiving the money are waging a bitter war on TV and social media to tilt the race in its final days.
With days to go before the election, the outside groups are raking in high-dollar donations, sending out direct mail pieces and battling in court over attack ads.
The next phase of elections in Louisiana will be the general election Nov. 16.
The race is the only remaining gubernatorial election in the U.S. this year, and it has drawn the interest of labor unions, business interests and political organizations from across the country. Voters will decide Saturday whether to keep the Deep South’s only Democratic governor, or replace him with Rispone, a businessman closely tied to President Donald Trump.
The big outside groups involved in the election are the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association, both based in Washington, D.C., which have poured about $9 million each into the race. That includes roughly $3 million apiece since the runoff.
The DGA funnels its money into Gumbo PAC, a Baton Rouge Super PAC dedicated to Edwards that is actively running TV ads attacking “Phony Rispone” as an ally of former Gov. Bobby Jindal and a problematic business owner. Rispone is the co-founder of ISC Constructors, an industrial contracting firm.
Gumbo is also running direct mail pieces that warn voters Rispone would repeal the homestead exemption, a popular tax break for homeowners, among other things.
Aside from the DGA, Gumbo has received at least $3 million in contributions since the primary last month. Gordon McKernan, a well-known injury attorney from Baton Rouge, has donated at least $100,000 to the group through a series of LLCs. River pilot groups, industrial chemical producer Rain CII Carbon, the liquefied natural gas firm Cheniere Energy and the Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation PAC, a D.C.-based union, are all among the major recent donors.
McKernan said in an email he’s glad to have been able to give a small fraction of the millions in personal wealth Rispone has given to his own campaign.
On the other side, the RGA has given its Right Direction PAC around $9 million total for the election, and since the runoff, it has spent $3.8 million on media. The RGA’s top donors include the insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield, Koch Industries and other business interests.
The RGA, like Rispone and other Republicans, have sought to nationalize the election, part of an effort to tie the governor – who breaks with his party on abortion and guns – to national Democrats. The RGA began the runoff by launching ads that use video from a Trump rally in Lake Charles a day before the primary and has since highlighted Edwards’ support of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A new spot that began airing Wednesday in the race paints Edwards’ supporters as “radicals” and “socialists,” urging voters to “send a clear message” that the state stands with Trump by voting Edwards out.
Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, a political enemy of the Democratic governor, has started his own Super PAC in the race, Make Louisiana Great Again, which has launched attack ads on Edwards over criminal justice reforms. Landry’s group raised more than $1 million from a wide range of business interests and others. They include allies of Ripsone like Baton Rouge industry executive Art Farve, oil and gas industry executives like Landry ally Shane Guidry, and an affiliate of Louisiana Healthcare Connections, which recently lost out on a sizable state Medicaid contract. The group’s largest donor, American Policy Coalition, Inc., is a dark money group whose donors are secret but which has spent millions on conservative causes throughout the U.S., according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Since his first visit to Louisiana for the election, Trump returned to the state to stump for Rispone in Monroe last week, and he will rally Thursday in Bossier City. Republicans hope he can muscle Rispone over the finish line in a state he won by nearly 20 points in 2016.
Recent polls say Saturday’s election for governor is a toss-up.
State Sen. Troy Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, said he thinks Trump’s visit is backfiring. He pointed to growing enthusiasm among Democratic voters for the runoff that didn’t exist in the primary.
“I think (Trump) has motivated moderate Republicans and Democrats, black and white, to come out and reject the kind of Washington-style hate speak,” Carter said.
Democrats are visiting churches and retooling their ground game after a lagging turnout in the primary. Edwards toured an art studio in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood Wednesday, saying he understands the “importance of New Orleans to the state,” and that his opponent does not.
Allies of the governor are also blanketing the radio airwaves and urging people to vote. In one spot running in New Orleans, Carter likens Rispone and Trump to white supremacist David Duke, much like an ad launched by the Black Organization for Leadership Development last week that was turned into a Rispone campaign ad slamming the governor. The state Democratic Party paid for Carter’s ad, he said, and he pointed to comments Duke has made in recent days embracing the Republican.
Rispone has criticized the comparisons between him and Duke, calling them “disgusting.”
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Another state senator, Metairie Republican Conrad Appel, has also waded into the governor’s race with an outside group. One of Rispone’s earliest supporters in the state Legislature, Appel started the Causeway Connection PAC shortly after the primary started, mainly to juice Republican turnout. He said the effort is supported by business and civic leaders in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes.
“We felt like the (Rispone) campaign had a strategy that was what I'd call a 30,000-foot view, where they were doing a lot of television and things like that, but they weren't doing the knocking on door stuff,” Appel said in an interview.
Appel’s organization also recently began running attack ads launched by Truth in Politics, a 501(c)(4) co-founded by GOP donor Lane Grigsby, that hammer a West Point buddy of Edwards for his bidding on state coastal work.
But the ad Truth in Politics ran had to be pulled down and revised after initially claiming, erroneously, that a $65 million contract had been awarded to Edwards’ friend, Murray Starkel. In fact, it was not awarded to anyone. A New Orleans voter, Linda Kocher, filed suit in Orleans Parish district court Wednesday and a judge granted an order that requires the revised ads to be taken down temporarily.
Appel stood by the revised ads, saying in a statement he will appeal and that the ads are “100 percent truthful.”
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Staff writers Tyler Bridges and Andrea Gallo contributed to this story.