Inaugural setup 123119

Workmen are constructing a podium and seating on State Capitol steps for the Jan. 13, 2020 inauguration ceremony of Gov. John Bel Edwards. The governor plans to forego many of the traditional inaugural events so that lawmakers, himself and others can go to New Orleans for the collegiate football national championship that evening. But Edwards legally must take the oath of office on that day to begin his second term. 

John Bel Edwards may have been considered the "accidental governor" when he was elected in 2015, but about $73 million was spent on his reelection – or to get rid of him – making the 2019 race the most expensive in state history.

Edwards will take the oath for his second term on Jan. 13.

The three major 2019 candidates, alone, raised and spent $46.9 million, nearly the same amount as the previous total cost record in 2015, about $50 million, a race that featured four major candidates and included contributions from political action committees, operating for the first time without donation limits.

When adding in the money contributed by the major political action committees in the 2019 race, the Republicans spent a total of $34.4 million and the Democrats poured in about $38.7 million.

The lion’s share of the $73 million total was spent during the seven weeks from right before the Oct. 12 primary to the Nov. 16 runoff, according to campaign finance disclosures made public over the weekend by the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

“It’s hard to believe that much money was spent in such a short period of time. It was a hard year,” said Roy Fletcher, the Baton Rouge political strategist who guided Mike Foster to the Governor’s Mansion in 1996.

Part of the reason: Unlike previous elections, nobody outside the political bubble paid much attention to the race until early October. The presumed Republican frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, wasn’t raising much money. The largely unknown Baton Rouge businessman, Eddie Rispone, who became a serious contender because he was willing to put in millions of dollars in personal wealth, eventually spending $15 million, waited until mid-September to unleash his campaign. And President Donald Trump, who remains popular in Louisiana, stumped in the state three times asking voters to fire Edwards.

“Nationally, it mattered because Louisiana is a red state with a Democratic governor. It mattered because the president of the United States came here three times and said it mattered,” Fletcher added.

Additionally, national groups and party organizations had few other races competing for their dollars.

Only four states had contests for governor or legislative seats, which meant the national party organizations didn’t have to spread its money as far. Last year, 36 governors and legislatures were up for election and more than $2.2 billion was spent by candidates and PACs.

This year Kentucky, Mississippi and Louisiana chose governors and all 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly were in play. All were expensive races but Louisiana gubernatorial candidates raised more than the candidates in Mississippi and Kentucky combined.

A surprisingly competitive race in deep red Mississippi between Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the candidates raised and spent about $16 million going into the final days before voting, according to that state’s campaign financial disclosures. (Mississippi’s final reports aren’t due until Jan. 10). And in Kentucky, which has about the same population as Louisiana and similarly was visited by Trump stumping for the GOP gubernatorial candidate, the governor’s candidates raised and spent about $12 million, that state’s disclosures show.

Though $73 million total is a lot to persuade only 2.9 million registered voters, Louisiana’s was not the most expensive state-level race on record. Last year’s gubernatorial contests in Florida and Illinois topped $210 million each.

Republicans had targeted Edwards as the “accidental governor,” and he spent the last four years with a big bullseye on his back.

In 2015, former Public Service Commission Chairman Scott Angelle focused a prostitution scandal that previously had failed to stick to one of his fellow Republicans in the governor’s race, former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, by saying during a debate. He said: “We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana, if we elect David Vitter as governor.” Emboldened by the positive response to Angelle’s attack, many moderate Republicans began undermining Vitter, who had a reputation for political ruthlessness. The other Republican in the race, Jay Dardenne, abandoned Vitter and endorsed Edwards in the runoff, later landing a top post as Edwards’ commissioner of administration.

Edwards became the only Democrat elected to statewide office in red Louisiana and the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. Starting almost as soon as he was sworn in as governor in 2016, Edwards raised about $23 million – $14.8 million of which came in during 2018 and 2019. Rispone raised $21.2 million in 2018 and 2019, but about $15 million came from his own pocket.

During his reelection bid, Edwards didn’t sketch out several hours a day to “dial for dollars,” as most politicians do, said Richard Carbo, his campaign manager.

Instead, Edwards would phone donors whenever he was in the SUV being driven to and from campaign events. The governor also combined fundraising with grassroots events, sometimes speaking at breakfasts, coffees, lunches, cocktail parties and dinner events – often on the same day and all of which raised money for the campaign.

For instance, Carbo said, a small cocktail party hosted by James Carville, a political strategist who helped elect Bill Clinton president, in his palatial Uptown New Orleans home raised six figures in the week leading into early voting for the runoff.

The crowd wasn’t large but, with the exception of some of Carville's LSU students, they were lawyers and businessmen with deep pockets. Speaking from a raised stairwell landing, New Orleans Mayor Cantrell shook her fists with passion about the need to protect the city by voting for Edwards. Carville jokingly reminded his few dozen guests to dig deep and write big checks. Edwards mused about beating both Alabama and Rispone – neither contest had taken place at the time – before launching into his standard stump speech.

Afterwards, he and his wife, Donna, milled around the crowd and took selfies with folks.

The total spending in the race reflects the period beginning in January 2018 through Dec. 16, 2019. The numbers could change slightly in February 2021 when a supplemental report is due and includes any bills paid after Dec. 17.

But the financial disclosures don’t include all the spending. A myriad of political groups organized under the federal code 501(c)(4), spent heavily in the election but are difficult to track. Those organizations are often called “dark money” groups because the information they have to disclose publicly is limited.

Based on reporting to Federal Communications Commission when television advertising is purchased, Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby’s Truth in Politics group spent about $750,000 on commercials. Put Louisiana First, a pro-Edwards nonprofit run by Republican businessman Richard Lipsey, also spent money on the race. As political nonprofits, those groups are not required to disclose their donors.

Truth in Politics and Causeway Connections PAC, run by outgoing Republican state Sen. Conrad Appel, of Metairie, ran similar attack ads against Edwards in the final days of the race that accused him of helping a West Point buddy land a multi-million-dollar coastal contract. But a judge ordered the ad be taken off the airwaves after it became clear the contract was never awarded.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, one of Edwards’ most prominent GOP adversaries, stepped up during the runoff election through a Super PAC he founded called Make Louisiana Great Again to hammer the Democratic governor in TV ads. The group ran ads that slammed a bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms that Edwards supported.

The Democratic Party of Louisiana spent about $2 million “in-kind” donations to Edwards, including polls, radio advertising and mailers. About half that money was spent between the primary and runoff. The Republican Party of Louisiana, on the other hand, stayed out of the primary, which pitted Rispone and Abraham against each other and Edwards. After the primary, the state GOP spent $1.3 million on television and radio commercials for Rispone as well as for other campaign items.

The two heavy hitters in the race were the Democratic Governors Association and the Republican Governors Association, both based in Washington, D.C. The RGA said Louisiana was its top priority, and it spent more than $9 million here to attack Edwards and boost the Republican candidates. Meanwhile, the DGA funneled at least $8.8 million into Gumbo PAC, the group that played a crucial role in electing Edwards in 2015.

Gumbo PAC, run by Baton Rouge Democratic operative Trey Ourso, hammered Edwards’ Republican challengers through TV ads, digital spots and mailers. It sourced millions of dollars from attorneys who represent the injured seeking recompense from businesses and their insurers, a constituency generally allied with the Democratic governor, including at least $265,000 from Morris Bart; $225,000 from Talbot, Carmouche & Marcello; and $210,000 from Gordon McKernan. In all, Gumbo PAC spent north of $13.5 million since 2018.

Ourso said mainly Gumbo PAC was just trying to keep pace. Rispone favored television advertising, as did his GOP allies. Gumbo PAC wanted to ensure a pro-Edwards spot responded to anti-Edwards commercials. “Normally, a campaign is not so TV heavy. But we were just trying to make sure the governor wasn’t being outspent on television,” Ourso said.

The National Education Association Advocacy Fund, representing the nation’s largest teacher’s union, gave $650,000 to Gumbo PAC, making it the second-largest donor. New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Gayle Benson, through two LLCs, gave at least $100,000 to the effort to re-elect Edwards. Jim Ward and Fred Heebe, the owners of the River Birch landfill in Waggaman whose previous political donations were scrutinized as part of an earlier federal criminal probe unrelated to Edwards that eventually imploded without charges, gave twice that amount to Gumbo through their own Super PAC. A host of industrial companies also pumped money into both sides. Tellurian Services, a Houston-based natural gas firm building a massive LNG export facility in southwest Louisiana, gave Gumbo PAC $110,000.

Several major industry executives, like Boysie Bollinger and Art Favre, along with insurance firms like Gray and Company and the Maryland-based dark money group American Policy Coalition, Inc. funded Landry’s Make Louisiana Great Again PAC.

The RGA spent its money through a Super PAC it organized in Louisiana called Right Direction PAC.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.