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U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham, R-La., left, shakes hands with Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, with moderator Robert Travis Scott, Public Affairs Research Council president, at center, just before the start of the non-partisan PAR gubernatorial forum held Thursday, April 11, 2019 at Crown Plaza Hotel Baton Rouge. Candidate Eddie Rispone had a prior engagement.

Gov. John Bel Edwards raised the most money for his campaign of any gubernatorial candidate in the first quarter of 2019, but Republican businessman Eddie Rispone reported the largest war chest after lending his campaign more than $10 million from his personal bank account in recent months.

The fundraising figures come six months ahead of the gubernatorial primary election, where the Democratic Edwards is running for reelection against two Republicans, Rispone and Congressman Ralph Abraham, R-Alto. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the contest will be decided by a runoff between the two top vote-getters in November.

Edwards, who raised around $2.6 million during the period, reported just under $10.2 million cash on hand. The governor is seeking to keep his seat as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. Rispone, of Baton Rouge, had $10.5 million in his campaign account after raising just over half a million dollars and loaning his campaign another $5 million during the period.

The governor is in the midst of a three-month fundraising blackout period when the Legislature is session and for a month after it adjourns, as outlined by state law. 

Abraham raised more money from donors during the period than Rispone. Abraham raised $793,985, compared to Rispone’s $560,961.

But Rispone’s personal loans to his campaign in recent months – two for $5 million each and another for $50,000--have set him apart from Abraham in the fundraising race. Abraham has significantly less cash on hand – just over $1 million – than the other two candidates.

“To stay competitive, he probably needs a couple more million,” pollster Baton Rouge Bernie Pinsonat said of Abraham.

The congressman has a base of support in north Louisiana that helps him in comparison to his Republican challenger, Pinsonat said, but Abraham will need some extra funding to become better known in places like Baton Rouge and the river parishes.

Abraham strategist Lionel Rainey said the campaign is running a lean operation and is on pace to have enough money to effectively run against Edwards.

“There’s a difference in having a huge personal bank account and then having people getting excited about your campaign and having a people-funded campaign,” said Lionel Rainey, a political strategist for Abraham’s campaign. “There's nothing we can do about the size of someone's personal bank account. That's not what wins races."

Rispone spokesman Anthony Ramirez responded that Rispone has a 10 to one cash-on-hand advantage on Abraham with 25 percent more individual donors.

"(Rispone) is the only conservative outsider, and has more money in the bank than the governor," Ramirez said in a statement. "Rispone is the Republican best positioned to defeat Gov. Edwards this fall."

Rispone, co-founder of ISC Constructors, spent more than half-a-million dollars in the first quarter, significantly more than Abraham did but less than the $763,000 spent by the governor.

Rispone received contributions from several lawmakers, including state Sens. Dan Claitor, Jack Donahue, Eddie Lambert and Bodi White, as well as state Reps. Stuart Bishop, Scott Simon and Tony Bacala. Well-known Baton Rouge injury attorney Gordon McKernan also donated $1,000 to Rispone’s campaign.

Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Holl said the real question is whether Rispone will actually spend the $10 million, or if he is merely trying to force Abraham out of the race.

“While Ralph Abraham has almost no support, 90 percent of Eddie Rispone’s support comes from people named Eddie Rispone,” Holl said. “There’s a reason both Rispone and Abraham's campaigns are floundering: they want to take us back to Bobby Jindal’s $2 billion deficits and failing economy. Louisianans don’t want to go back, they want to keep moving forward with Gov. Edwards. That’s why Gov. Edwards has raised more than five times the amount his opponents have raised from donors combined.”


Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.