Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards claimed a second term Saturday, winning a stunning victory in a heavily Republican state and beating back repeated attacks by President Donald Trump in a race closely watched nationwide.
Edwards defeated Republican businessman Eddie Rispone with about 51% of the vote, polling 40,341 ballots more than his opponent out of more than 1.5 million cast. Edwards received 774,469 votes and Rispone received 734,128, according to complete but unofficial returns. Slightly more than half, 50.7%, of the state’s 2.97 million registered voters participated.
Appearing before a packed ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge, Edwards delivered a rousing victory speech, vowing to keep fighting to raise the minimum wage, close the gender pay gap and invest more in early childhood education, which he called his No. 1 priority in his second term. After defying the best efforts of Trump to oust him, the governor in his victory appearance only once mentioned him, saying, “as for the president, God bless his heart.”
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“Tonight, the people of Louisiana have chosen to chart their own path,” Edwards said. “I have never been more hopeful that Louisiana’s best days are ahead. Because we’ve proven what we can do when we put people over politics.”
The governor dismissed the “partisan forces” of Washington, D.C., and listed his first-term accomplishments, like expanding Medicaid to cover about half a million working poor and giving public school teachers their first pay raise in a decade, all key planks of his reelection platform. Edwards said he thanked his opponent for putting himself up for public service when Rispone called to concede.
“You didn’t just vote for me,” Edwards told his supporters. “You voted for four more years of putting Louisiana first. You may have heard me say once or twice God will order our steps, but we have to move our feet. And you moved your feet to the polls.”
At the same time Edwards was giving his speech, Rispone was conceding across town.
“We have nothing to be ashamed of," Rispone told his supporters gathered about 5 miles away at L'Auberge Casino & Hotel. "We have over 700,000 people in Louisiana that really want something better and something different.”
The polls showed Edwards and Rispone were virtually tied going into voting Saturday, with few undecideds and neither candidate making significant inroads into the other’s base. Analysts had predicted the race would come down to who got their supporters to the polls.
Urban ministers, organized labor and black politicians worked for Edwards, the 53-year-old who is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. Rispone, a 70-year-old businessman making his first run for public office, had Trump at his side at rallies — along with $2 million and 60 paid staffers sent at the last minute from the Republican National Committee and millions more dollars from the Republican Governors Association — hoping to flip the office to the GOP.
Although Edwards’ Republican opponents sought to tie the governor to national Democrats, Edwards is a rare pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat who has at times angered progressives for his positions. Edwards expanded the Medicaid rolls, which Republicans have refused to do elsewhere for years, to cover about half a million working poor adults. But he also signed one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans, which Democrats have opposed.
Edwards campaigned for his first term promising sweeping changes to the way the state collects and spends taxes to curtail deficits and recurring service cuts. But it took three years of negotiations with a seemingly intransigent House Republican leadership before a compromise plan was put together with moderate Republicans that increased state sales taxes by about a half-cent and suspended tax exemptions until mid-2025.
Campaigning for reelection, Edwards liked to point out that the changes created a surplus and stabilized the budget to the point that Wall Street analysts approved. His opponents said the surplus was caused by Edwards’ overtaxing the people of Louisiana.
Edwards begins his second term with a Republican “supermajority” in the state Senate and the GOP holding a near two-thirds majority in the Louisiana House. With those numbers, Republicans can easily override Edwards’ vetoes and stymie his plans.
All the agency heads elected statewide but Edwards are Republicans. And the GOP holds all but one of the eight positions in the U.S. House and Senate.
On the campaign trail, Edwards said he hoped to increase funding for early childhood education as well as for public schools and colleges. He also said he will push to set up renewable funding to tackle the state’s highway and bridge problems.
But Edwards might face a budget complication: Oil prices are expected to drop in 2020, which would crimp state finances and raise the possibility of a downturn in oil activity and jobs.
Rispone joined the race in 2018. But not until U.S. Sen. John Kennedy opted against running in early 2019 — which prompted U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham to announce he was in — was the governor’s race set. Though a formidable GOP donor and adviser to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rispone started the race largely unknown among voters.
It wasn’t until his campaign attacked Abraham that polls showed Rispone’s numbers growing. After edging past Abraham into the runoff, Rispone surged in polls to a virtual tie with Edwards.
The race was by and large a furtive affair, in which the three main candidates campaigned little and said less in the primary.
Campaigning became more bare knuckles when Trump stormed Louisiana. The president turned the race from one about taxes and economic development into one that the national media called a referendum on the president and his red-meat national issues at a time he is facing impeachment.
Rarely have presidents been so involved in a state-level race. Trump visited Louisiana three times to rally Republican and rural voters to head to the polls and “fire” Edwards, calling him “a radical.”
Trump won Louisiana by nearly 20 points in 2016 and remains popular here. He claimed credit for forcing Edwards into a runoff against Rispone.
During his three 90-minute rallies, Trump spent most of the time attacking U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who heads the impeachment inquiry, and cataloging what he’s done while president.
Trump wanted to show political strength by sweeping three gubernatorial races in predominantly Republican states. With incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin’s loss in Kentucky and Rispone’s loss in Louisiana, the president ended up one for three, with Trump scoring a win only when Republican Tate Reeves held off a Democratic rival in Mississippi.
Trump told Louisiana voters they could send a message to national Democrats that they stood behind him by voting for Rispone.
Rispone echoed the president’s message, proclaiming, “We are Trump country” when brought to the mic for a few minutes during each of the rallies.
“This is bigger than Louisiana. We have to send a message to these liberal socialists in Washington. How do we send that message?” Rispone asked at one. “You elect me as governor.”
National groups, such as the Republican Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association, both based in Washington, D.C., poured about $9 million each into the race. That includes roughly $3 million apiece since the runoff.
Republicans attempted to tie Edwards to gun control policies advocated nationally by some Democrats — despite the fact that Edwards, who comes from a law enforcement family, has hunted all his life and acquired his first gun at the age of 9.
Edwards was comfortably ahead after votes were counted in the Oct. 12 primary but was still about 45,000 votes shy of winning outright. Historically, Louisiana incumbents who don’t win reelection in the primary lose in the runoff. Only 45.9% of the registered voters participated in the primary. About 165,116 more voters cast ballots in the runoff.
But Edwards supporters organized substantial get-out-the-vote efforts for the runoff and succeeded in raising black voter participation from 25% in the October primary’s first round of voting to 31% of the early voters in the runoff. The Secretary of State’s Office will have more definitive numbers on voter demographics in the runoff later this week.
Black politicos, such as newly elected state Sen. Cleo Fields and state Sen. Regina Barrow, organized get-out-the-vote rallies, as did unions. Urban churches and progressive advocacy groups used a newly developed micro-targeting technique to identify lower-income and black voters who didn’t participate in the October primary.
Edwards had overwhelming support in Louisiana cities, particularly New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
Rispone embodies the immigrant story: His grandfather’s family fled economically depressed Sicily in 1912 and ended up working the fields around Amite.
His father got a job at what is now the ExxonMobil refinery in Baton Rouge. Rispone went to Catholic schools and LSU before getting an executive job with an industrial contractor. He and his brother founded ISC Constructors in his living room, and the company grew into one of the largest industrial contractors in the country.
One of Rispone’s main campaign lines was what Louisiana needed to prosper economically was a leader from outside politics with significant business skills, like himself — and Trump.
Relying on out-of-state advisers who successfully elected governors in Tennessee and Florida, Rispone ran an unconventional campaign, for Louisiana at least, by eschewing the traditional retail politics of working festivals and appearing at forums. Instead, Rispone mostly spoke at Republican luncheons and with businessmen behind closed doors, noting that he usually returned home in time for bed at 9 each night. Tens of millions of dollars were spent to flood television with ads that mostly excoriated Edwards as a tax-and-spend liberal.
Edwards, who after the primary was seen a lot more on the campaign trail, made sure to remind audiences that Rispone refused invitations to public election events and rarely appeared in public.
“You have every right to be suspect of someone who doesn’t want to come and appear before you,” Edwards told community activists at a recent meeting Rispone skipped. “If he doesn’t want to come while he’s running for governor, can you imagine how he would treat you if he becomes the governor?”
Tyler Bridges, Sam Karlin and Will Sentell, of the Capitol news bureau, contributed to this report.