Grab your remote control. The campaign ads for governor are coming to your television set.
We don’t know which candidate for governor — or outside group — will launch the first favorable spot or attack ad.
But political pros say with the Oct. 12 primary less than four months away, it’s time for the governor’s race — sleepy until now — to kick into gear, and that will happen only with the spending of millions of dollars on television ads, which remain the most effective way to engage voters statewide.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat in an increasingly red state, will cast himself as a practical leader who reaches across the political aisle to secure achievements that move Louisiana forward, such as the Legislature’s bipartisan approval of teacher pay raises this year.
Meanwhile, his Republican opponents will try to undermine Edwards’ reelection campaign by painting him as a tax-and-spend liberal and by aligning themselves with President Donald Trump, who carried Louisiana with 58% of the vote three years ago and remains popular among conservative and some independent voters.
“The media wars are coming,” said George Kennedy, a veteran Republican media consultant based in Baton Rouge. “It’s not just on TV, but it’s also on direct mail and social media.”
Edwards holds a sizable lead for now as he seeks reelection against two Republican challengers: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham from northeast Louisiana and Eddie Rispone, a self-made electrical contractor from Baton Rouge.
Edwards would have won the race outright with over 50% of the vote if the election had been held three weeks ago, according to pollster Verne Kennedy, who has been surveying governor’s races in Louisiana since 1991 for different business leaders. Advocate owner John Georges is one of the executives paying for Kennedy’s surveys this year.
“John Bel has three main strengths: He’s pro-gun, he’s pro-Christian and he’s pro-life,” Verne Kennedy said.
Abraham, who was first elected to Congress in 2014, has about 23% of the vote and Rispone has about 7%, said John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based pollster.
Abraham has generated more buzz among Republican activists so far, but he had only $1 million in his campaign account as of April 15, when the latest reports were due, or about 10% of what Edwards and Rispone had.
Abraham and Rispone have been so underwhelming to Republican Party insiders that the insiders have repeatedly asked U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, to jump into the race. Scalise, who is the second-ranking House Republican in Washington, has repeatedly rejected those entreaties, including one by Trump a month ago when the president made two stops in Louisiana.
The governor not only has a healthy lead but he has more opportunities to control the political agenda because the media cover what he says and does every day. He also was sitting on a boatload of cash, $10.1 million, according to the April 15 campaign finance report. (The next campaign finance report is due on July 15.)
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George Kennedy said it’s possible that Edwards or his outside surrogate, the Democratic Governors Association, will go on TV first by attacking Abraham or Rispone, or both men, to try to tar them before they can introduce themselves to voters through their own ads. A super political action committee financed by a wealthy businessman supporting Edwards might also attack the Republican candidates in the coming days.
But George Kennedy said it is more likely that Rispone or the Republican Governors Association will launch the first ad campaign in Louisiana this year to try to cut into Edwards’ lead.
If so, the governor or the Democratic governors group will quickly respond, said Roy Fletcher, another veteran Republican media consultant, who worked for then-Public Service Commission member Scott Angelle in the governor’s race four years ago.
“Once Rispone or the RGA writes a check, all hell breaks loose,” Fletcher said. “The governor can’t let them go spending money without being up on TV, too.”
The cost of a solid statewide TV buy is about $500,000 per week. Most political pros believe that candidates, once they broadcast their first ad, should remain on the air until the election.
Angelle took a different approach in 2015, launching the campaign’s first ad in February that year when he trailed the other three candidates: then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the front-runner; then-Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne; and Edwards, then a state House member from Amite viewed as a long shot. Angelle aired his next ad in June.
“We were at 1% in February,” Fletcher said, adding that the introductory ad “kicked us about 8 or 9 points. We jump-started the campaign. The money started coming in.”
Abraham, with much less money than the others this year, has so far eschewed the Angelle strategy of running an ad early in the campaign to goose his fundraising.
Lionel Rainey, a spokesman for Abraham, said the campaign has done well with grassroots canvassing thus far.
“We have been able to communicate with voters consistently throughout the state,” Rainey said. “That’s why we’re in the position we’re in and why our media buy won’t be to create name ID but to activate the people who are already supporting us.”
Two factors would compel Rispone, who has never run for office before, to initiate the ad wars. One is that he is little known in Louisiana and has to climb past Abraham to have any shot at making a runoff with Edwards. The other is that his last campaign finance report showed that he donated $10 million to his own campaign.
Many political insiders remain unconvinced that Rispone will actually spend his money, believing that the businessman may have stuffed his campaign account in hopes of scaring Abraham out of the race.
Not so, said Anthony Ramirez, the campaign spokesman.
“If folks choose to underestimate Eddie, then that’s their prerogative,” said Ramirez. “He has said numerous times that he intends on winning this race. We’re running a full-fledged campaign. He is not scared of spending the money.”
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The Republican Governors Association, meanwhile, wants to knock out the state’s Democratic governor and might be willing to pour in millions of dollars to do so. Republicans govern the only other two states with governor’s races this year, Mississippi and Kentucky.
Louisiana “is the sole pickup opportunity (this year) for Republicans,” said Amelia Chasse Alcivar, the association’s spokeswoman. “We feel very bullish on this race. Gov. Edwards has shown in public polling and in his actions in the past three-plus years that he is vulnerable.”
George Kennedy agrees with her in part.
“John Bel right now is control of the race,” said Kennedy, who handled Dardenne’s gubernatorial media campaign four years ago. “But he is beatable.”
Edwards won’t lose to either Abraham or Rispone if they mount a conventional campaign against him, Kennedy said.
“It is critical that the two challengers do media that is provocative, effective and literally grabs voters’ attention fast,” Kennedy said. “We have an incumbent Democrat with decent (poll) numbers and plenty of money. That changes the landscape for two Republican challengers who are not well known. The good news is that there is plenty of room for growth. The bad news is that the incumbent Democrat is not going to roll over and play dead.”
Edwards has been using the power of his office in recent days to win free media coverage throughout the state.
In New Orleans one day last week, before a bank of news cameras, he signed legislation that will provide tens of millions of dollars for New Orleans’ decrepit roads and drainage system and that will authorize Harrah’s New Orleans Casino to build a new hotel and make other investments that will create hundreds of construction and permanent jobs.
On Tuesday at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Edwards signed legislation that creates a framework for Uber and Lyft to operate their ride-hailing services throughout the state.
On Thursday in LaPlace, Edwards held the first of a series of roundtable discussions with teachers to highlight his signature success from the 2019 legislative session: a pay raise of $1,000 per year for teachers and $500 per year for school support personnel. Reporters were invited afterward to hear from the happy teachers who received the raises.
Other roundtable discussions over the next month with Edwards will highlight the first increase in state money for early childhood education in a decade and increased funding for Louisiana’s state colleges and universities.
Edwards has more plans ahead.
“He’ll kick off a statewide bus tour in July — to discuss how far the state has come over the past three years with him as governor,” said Richard Carbo, the governor’s campaign manager.
Throughout the campaign, Edwards will tout his decision to expand Medicaid to the working poor, which has provided better access to health care for about 470,000 people.
He’ll also say he straightened out the budget mess he inherited from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, that the state’s unemployment rate has dropped on his watch, that he has reversed the budget cuts to education under Jindal, that he has brought road projects to every part of the state, and that he oversaw changes to Louisiana’s sentencing laws to make the state safer and to end Louisiana’s status as the nation’s biggest jailer.
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In web posts, Rispone describes himself as a fresh face who is an ardent Trump supporter. He has yet to lay out the policies he wants to adopt if elected governor.
Rispone, who recently hired five field directors in Louisiana, has been campaigning before conservative audiences throughout the state. Over the past week, he has made stops in New Iberia, Lafayette, Broussard, New Orleans, Houma and Baton Rouge.
Abraham, a farmer, veterinarian and doctor, has portrayed himself as the true conservative who has the experience to get things done in Baton Rouge. He has made campaign stops recently in Lake Charles, Monroe, Tallulah, Metairie, Alexandria and Fort Polk.
Both Rispone and Abraham — and outside groups such as the Republican Governors Association and the Baton Rouge-based Truth in Politics — will attack Edwards for the tax increases he supported, without noting that he did so with the support of the Republican-dominated Legislature to stabilize the state’s finances.
Victory for Louisiana, which is an arm of the state Democratic Party solely focused on the governor’s race, has been repeatedly hitting Abraham for missing votes in Washington while he campaigns for governor.
One of the votes was to reauthorize funding for the National Flood Insurance Program, an important issue for Louisiana.
Gumbo PAC, which by law is not allowed to coordinate its activities with the Edwards campaign, has produced a web ad that shows Abraham’s name plate in front of an empty chair while digital imagery of water steadily covers them up.
Abraham spent the day tending to patients at his doctor’s office in Rayville, Rainey said.