The battle lines have already been drawn in the five-week campaign to elect Louisiana’s next governor in the Nov. 16 runoff.
It’s likely to be a taut, bruising contest.
In the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 12 primary, Gov. John Bel Edwards is touting how he fixed Louisiana’s budget mess and expanded Medicaid to the working poor, and he is telling voters that electing Eddie Rispone would return Louisiana to the failed policies of his unpopular predecessor, Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Rispone is continuing to pitch himself as a job-creating businessman with an outsider’s perspective as a first-time candidate, likening himself to President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican. He is saying that Edwards’ decision to raise taxes and his alliances with trial lawyers have choked off jobs and investment.
Outside groups – the pro-Edwards Gumbo PAC on one side, and the Republican Governors Association and the business-funded Truth in Politics on the other – will continue to act as the heavies, with TV ads and mailers slamming the other candidate.
The key question to be answered on Nov. 16 is this: Will Louisiana voters elect a Democrat they mostly like, or will they turn toward a candidate from the political party that most of them prefer?
Edwards and Rispone each can legitimately claim to have a winning strategy.
Edwards, a Democrat, ran first in the Oct. 12 primary with 46.6%, versus 27.4% for Rispone and 23.6% for U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham – both Republicans. A Democrat, a Republican and an independent candidate split the other 2.4%.
In all, the Democratic candidates won 47.4%, the Republicans 51.8% and independent Gary Landrieu the other 0.75%.
The path to victory in the runoff is clear for each candidate. Edwards needs to increase his primary vote by 3.5 percentage points to pass the magic 50% mark, while Rispone needs to secure all the primary votes that were cast for Republicans to be elected governor.
He and his conservative allies will try to stop Edwards from snagging more than a handful of the Abraham voters.
Edwards, 53, starts out the runoff with several pluses.
Most importantly, voters like him. Edwards’ favorable-to-unfavorable measurement was an enviable +25 in a survey taken a week before the election by Florida-based pollster Verne Kennedy. (Kennedy’s polling also showed Edwards winning in the primary with 7 percentage points more than he actually received.)
In the same vein, a survey by Baton Rouge-based pollster John Couvillon several days before the primary showed that, by a 50%-29% margin, voters believed the state was in a better position now than when Edwards took office.
Edwards is also campaign-tested. He bested his Republican opponent four years ago, then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who had never before lost an election.
Edwards has met tough challenges before. To become an U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, he had to endure 65 days of physical and mental tasks on four hours of sleep per night. To stay awake, he took coffee grounds from packets of instant coffee in his MREs and placed them between his cheek and gum and occasionally dabbed them with his tongue for a jolt.
Edwards won between 15% and 20% of the Republican vote on Oct. 12 after regularly reminding voters of his bipartisan efforts to close the budget gap inherited from Jindal – he and the Republican-majority Legislature temporarily raised sales taxes and ended some business tax breaks.
Edwards and state lawmakers also raised teachers’ pay, provided more money for early childhood education and approved a package of 10 bills that will permit some non-violent offenders to win early release and that requires the state to reinvest some of the savings in programs that aim to better integrate released inmates into society.
Rispone, 70, also counts on several pluses.
The most important is that he is a Republican in a state in which every statewide elected official is from the GOP, and where Republicans have held a majority in the Legislature since 2011. Republican legislative candidates won 64% of the vote in the primary, according to Couvillon.
Rispone met every test during the primary, showing a willingness to go for the jugular with his attack ads against Abraham while sticking to a folksy approach during the televised debates, in which he promoted himself as a rare candidate who is not beholden to any special interest.
Rispone has a strong personal story as a self-made man who started a company that now employs several thousand workers.
And of course Rispone will have Trump in his corner.
Kennedy, the pollster, estimates that conservative anger over the Democrats’ impeachment efforts in Washington and the pre-election night visit by the president swung at least 4% of the Republicans’ vote away from Edwards to either Rispone or Abraham – enough to keep the governor from winning re-election.
Rispone has another advantage: he can write more big checks to his campaign, given his personal wealth, while Edwards has to raise all of the money his campaign spends. Rispone loaned his campaign $11.5 million during the primary, although he doesn’t appear to have spent it all.
Rispone was not as popular as Edwards before the primary. He enjoyed a 35%-30% favorable to unfavorable measurement in Kennedy’s poll.
Edwards signaled his main talking points during his first TV ad – turning the deficit into a surplus, raising teacher pay and expanding Medicaid.
"Now we have a choice to make,” Edwards added. “Let Eddie Rispone drag us back to the deficits and cuts to health care and education of Bobby Jindal, or continue moving forward and investing in our future. That is what this election is about, and that’s why I’m asking for your vote."
“Louisiana cannot take four more years of a liberal Democrat governor, raising your taxes, killing your jobs, attacking your industries and taking money from open border extremists,” Trump also said. “You’ve got to vote John Bel Edwards out.”
Edwards will have several tasks over the next four weeks.
One is to bump up turnout among African-Americans, who represented only 26.5% of all voters versus 30% in the 2015 runoff. The turnout of whites was 49.8% versus only 38% of African-Americans, estimated Greg Rigamer, a New Orleans-based pollster, a 12-point gap that was much higher than the 3%-9% racial turnout gap in the last four elections since 2014.
Through polling, the governor will be identifying the 4%-8% of voters who indicated in pre-election polling that they like him, but then voted for Rispone or Abraham. Edwards will have to craft a message to draw them in.
Edwards and his allies will blanket Abraham’s 5th congressional district in northeast Louisiana with reminders of the harsh accusations Rispone made about the congressman during the primary, while Rispone will warn them against voting for a Democrat and remind them that Abraham endorsed his fellow Republican.
In the primary, Rispone refused to spell out his positions on the budget, taxes, education and health care.
Political consultants not working for either candidate predict that Edwards will fill in the blanks with warnings about what he thinks Rispone actually wants to do but doesn’t want to say. The governor began that effort on Thursday when he said Rispone wants to throw workers off Medicaid.
The political consultants said Edwards also will likely warn retired government workers in the coming days that Rispone has a secret plan to reduce their pensions.
Rispone will likely drive the message that the sales tax increase under Edwards and his coziness with trial lawyers have throttled business investment.
“Louisiana’s economy is ranked dead last in the south, thousands of jobs have left the state, and the people recognize that the state is falling further behind,” the Republican Governors Association said in a memo released the day after the primary.
Rispone will have another task: make sure that the 163,000 white voters – almost all of them likely were Republicans – who didn’t vote in the 2015 runoff but did vote in 2019 primary turn out once again on Nov. 16.