President Donald Trump introduces gubernatorial candidates Eddie Rispone, left, and Ralph Abraham during a rally Friday, October 11, 2019, at the Civic Center in Lake Charles, La.

As he trailed fellow Republican Congressman Ralph Abraham in the polls a few weeks before the primary election for governor last month, Eddie Rispone decided to launch a withering attack ad against his opponent.

It worked. With millions of dollars in personal wealth, Rispone blanketed the airwaves with the attack, painting Abraham as an ally of Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a liar. Abraham swung back, but the ads helped lift Rispone to the Nov. 16 runoff against Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Now Rispone’s campaign must convince Abraham’s primary supporters to vote for him, despite an acrimonious primary battle in which Abraham accused Rispone of lying about his character and record. And in a race that has remained exceedingly close throughout the runoff, the 317,149 people who voted for Abraham could prove crucial to Rispone if they consolidate around the lone Republican — or spell doom if they don’t.

“I hate that the ads had to go negative against Abraham,” said state Rep. Jack McFarland, a Jonesboro Republican who backed Abraham in the primary but now favors Rispone. “And there will be consequences for those negative ads.”

Several of Abraham’s close allies are still bitter from the rancorous primary, and while Abraham swiftly endorsed Rispone on election night last month, he has appeared only once at a Rispone event — when Donald Trump came to Monroe, in the heart of his congressional district, last week.

Still, Republicans hope Trump will energize the Republican electorate in north Louisiana, especially after making a trip to Bossier City on Thursday to rally supporters for Rispone again. McFarland said he thinks Trump’s visits will make a difference in convincing Abraham’s supporters to look past the infighting.

In the primary, Abraham’s 24%, combined with Rispone’s 27%, meant more voters cast ballots for those two Republicans combined than for Edwards, who got about 47% of the vote.

“The threat for Rispone was Abraham voters simply sitting out,” Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana Monroe, said of voters in the fifth congressional district. “Trump’s visit is strategically critical in soothing the hurt feelings of these voters by bringing in the only Republican capable of getting them excited.”

North Louisiana is a Republican stronghold, and includes several of the parishes David Vitter won in his 2015 runoff against Edwards. Edwards is more likely to land crossover Republican votes in the suburbs of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, analysts say.

Meanwhile, allies of the governor — though not explicitly Edwards' own campaign — are seeking to capitalize on Trump's visits to the state in their own right, using the president's appearances to try to energize Democratic voters to go to the polls and vote against Rispone. 

Late in the evening on Oct. 12, the primary election day, Abraham took the stage at his modest election night watch party, at the University of Louisiana-Monroe library, and dismissed the tussling between he and Rispone as the “unfortunate part of politics,” before endorsing his fellow Republican. At his rally in Monroe last week, Trump called Abraham and Rispone “real friends.”

“Go vote Saturday for Eddie,” Abraham said at the rally, after praising Trump. “Let’s get this thing done, put the horse in the barn and go win a ballgame.”

Scott Franklin, a close Abraham ally and member of his campaign finance team, introduced the congressman to supporters on the night of the primary election. Unlike Abraham, though, Franklin has not moved on.

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“This Abraham disciple is still very bitter,” Franklin said. “What Eddie did to Ralph was wrong, an attack riddled with lies. I have some significant disagreements with John Bel Edwards ... However, I cannot go along with supporting a man that lied about a good man’s character. So I voted for John Bel Edwards, hoping that he can make best with a second term after a disappointing first term.”

Rispone spokesman Anthony Ramirez said Rispone has been back to Abraham’s congressional district a handful of times during the runoff. He dismissed the fact that Abraham hasn’t campaigned for Rispone, pointing to Abraham’s duties as a congressman, after he missed votes to run for governor in the primary.

“I think we’re seeing voters come home,” Ramirez said. “The fact of the matter is Ralph Abraham was the first person to endorse Eddie for the runoff.”

Many of the heavy-hitting fundraisers that backed Abraham have lined up behind Rispone. Boysie Bollinger and Joe Canizaro, two prolific GOP donors who spearheaded Abraham’s fundraising operation in the primary, are backing Rispone. So too are businessmen Scott Ballard, D. Wayne Elmore, James Moore, Thomas O’Neal and Dennis Pasentine, all members of Abraham’s campaign finance committee, according to Ethics Board records.

Edwards has campaigned hard on Abraham’s home turf. He’s held at least 16 events in the fifth congressional district, from church visits in Monroe to a fish fry in Oak Grove to meet-and-greets in Ferriday to a rally last week at a public park aimed at preempting Trump’s appearance at the Monroe Civic Center later in the evening.

His campaign also took a page from the successful playbook that made Edwards the only Democratic governor in the South four years ago, reminding Abraham supporters of the attacks made against their candidate.

In the 2015 race, former U.S. Sen. David Vitter became embroiled in a primary campaign against fellow Republicans Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle that became historically spiteful. Dardenne crossed party lines to support Edwards in the runoff, while Angelle didn’t endorse anyone. Immediately after the runoff began, Gumbo PAC, a Super PAC supporting Edwards, ran ads that highlighted Dardenne and Angelle’s own attacks on Vitter in the primary.

While the 2019 race featured nowhere near the level of trash-talking as that race, Edwards’ campaign launched an ad about a week after the primary last month that showed clips of Abraham blasting Rispone over the attack ad.

“You know those ads you were running against me and my family were lies,” Abraham said to Rispone during a debate, an exchange used in the Edwards spot. “When you stand up here and tell blatant lies to the good people of Louisiana, you’re the politician. Not me.”

Edwards doesn’t necessarily need to convince a large chunk of Abraham voters to switch sides, LSU Public Policy Research Lab Director Michael Henderson said if the governor gets 10% of Abraham’s primary voters, he probably wins. But the governor has a better chance winning over Abraham supporters in the more suburban and urban parts of south Louisiana where he has shown continued strength — not the rural north Louisiana parishes that are increasingly friendly to Trump, Henderson said.

Henderson also said he is skeptical Trump’s rallies will move the needle in a significant way, noting Rispone’s campaign is already chiefly about the president, after Rispone introduced himself to voters through ads professing his loyalty to Trump. “I think it’s already baked in,” he said.

Lee Thomason, a family friend of Abraham, attended the Trump rally in Monroe last week, but he said he was “extremely disappointed” at Rispone’s tactics in the primary. He remains undecided who he will vote for, but he pointed out Abraham endorsed Rispone, something that will factor into his decision.

“It will be tough to overlook Rispone’s tactics to get into the runoff,” he said. “In regards to Gov. Edwards, it is frustrating to see Louisiana towards the bottom in many measures with little to no improvement during his first administration.”

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