Eddie Rispone after early voting

Eddie Rispone, the Republican candidate for governor in the Nov. 16 runoff election, speaks to reporters after early voting at Baton Rouge City Hall on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. 

Republican and Democratic operatives in the Louisiana governor’s race escalated their rhetoric Monday as supporters of Gov. John Bel Edwards made fiery comparisons between his GOP challenger, Eddie Rispone, and white supremacist David Duke, prompting the state Republican Party to hit back by calling Edwards’ family “racist" because his ancestors owned slaves. 

The increasingly bitter tactics, involving racial charges and counter-charges rarely made in such stark terms in modern Louisiana elections, come amid a week-long early voting period in the Nov. 16 runoff. The election will decide whether Edwards can remain the only Democratic governor in the Deep South or whether Republican challenger Rispone, for whom President Donald Trump will rally supporters later this week in Monroe, can fulfill a national GOP priority to flip the seat.

While Edwards’s own campaign has largely sought to keep the focus on state issues, operatives on both sides are now actively trying to nationalize the election and make the choice between Rispone and Edwards analogous to a vote for or against Trump.

Meanwhile, Edwards tried to keep the news cycle focused on comments Rispone made last week that the governor “hurt the reputation” of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which Edwards attended, by becoming a "trial lawyer" who will “will say or do anything to stay in power.” Trial lawyers represent plaintiffs against companies in court. Edwards was small town lawyer who represented both plaintiffs and defendants in court occasionally, but mostly handled contracts, wills and other general legal needs.

Edwards’ campaign touted comments from a West Point graduate, other veterans and veterans groups that defended the governor and blasted Rispone. 

But early Monday, after voting at City Hall in Baton Rouge, Rispone cried foul over radio ads launched by the political action committee of the Black Organization for Leadership Development (BOLD) that urged Democratic New Orleans voters to cast ballots against Rispone to send a message to Trump. One, narrated by New Orleans City Councilman Jay Banks, compared Rispone and Trump to Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and state representative. Duke supported Trump’s run for president in 2016, and Trump drew criticism for not disavowing his support quickly enough.

“What is the difference between David Duke, Eddie Rispone and Donald Trump? The only difference is that Eddie Rispone will be governor if you do not stop him,” Banks says in the spot.

Rispone called the ads “disgusting,” and said Edwards’ allies are “playing the race card again.” His campaign used audio from the ads to launch its own spots aimed at energizing Trump supporters to go to the polls.

“They’re comparing Donald Trump and me to David Duke, that’s how low they will stoop to win this race. It’s incredible,” he said.

“Nothing could be further from the truth than me being a racist,” he added later at a campaign stop at a private aircraft area of the New Orleans airport.

Banks, a Democrat who succeeded New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell on the City Council after being elected in 2017, acknowledged Edwards has his own relationship with Trump, but said “the goal is to mobilize Democratic voters because this is not a game.”

He pointed to Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a Charlottesville, Virginia clash between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators, and argued that Rispone “can’t have it both ways” with supporting Trump. Duke attended that demonstration. Banks also accused Rispone of “inciting hatred of New Orleans” by claiming it is a “sanctuary city.” The Trump administration has said the city does not fall under that category.

In response to the ads, the Louisiana Republican party sent an email to members that said “your governor just called YOU a racist because you support President Donald Trump.” Edwards said his campaign was not behind the radio ads or door hangers that similarly compared Rispone and Trump to Duke.

The party also said “the Edwards family has been racist for generations,” citing a September article by the conservative Washington Times that said Edwards’ grandfather, a former state lawmaker, supported segregation and other racist policies in the 1950s, and that the governor’s ancestors owned slaves before the Civil War.

The governor’s campaign said in a statement to the publication that “the actions of my ancestors, before I was born, if true, do not in any way reflect my views.” Edwards added he has spent his life “fighting against inequality.”

In a phone interview Monday, Edwards, whose electoral success depends on large numbers of African Americans going to the polls, declined to comment on the BOLD ads comparing Rispone to the former KKK leader, saying he had not heard them. Asked about Trump’s visit, scheduled for Wednesday in Monroe, Edwards highlighted his working relationship with the president, even saying the president is “welcome anytime.”

“Maybe he doesn’t know I’ve run three consecutive surpluses in Louisiana while the federal government is running a deficit of $1 trillion a year,” Edwards said. “It seems like that would be keeping him busy in Washington.”

The governor has mostly – but not entirely – tried to keep the campaign about Louisiana issues, while Rispone has embraced Trump at every pass. The contrast between BOLD’s ads and Edwards’ comments on Trump illustrates a tightrope the governor is walking in trying to inspire his Democratic base to go out and vote while also seeking to retain appeal among Republicans, especially those who voted for the third-place finisher, Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, in the primary.

To help accomplish that feat, Edwards’s campaign on Monday blasted out comments from veterans, including Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton, former Louisiana Republican party member and repeat candidate retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, and William Murdy, a West Point graduate, criticizing Rispone and defending the governor. Edwards has used Rispone’s comments as an opportunity to play up his background as a West Point graduate and former Army Airborne Ranger, as well as highlight the fact that Rispone has not served in the military.

“That’s a big difference between him and me,” Edwards said Monday when asked about the BOLD ads. “(Rispone’s) actually saying things himself out of his own lips and he ought to be held (to) account for that.”

Edwards’ West Point background played a key role in his successful bid for governor in 2015, especially when contrasted with the prostitution scandal that plagued his opponent, former U.S. Sen. David Vitter.

Asked whether he stood by his comments about Edwards’ military background, Rispone said “I guess being politically correct I should not have brought it up.”

“I love veterans. I support veterans,” Rispone said. “What I was talking about was a liberal tax and spend trial lawyer as our governor. Then they flipped that around by saying I don’t like vets. That’s ridiculous. Those are the kinds of things that are going on. He’s desperate.”

Staff writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this story

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com