Ralph Abraham

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, in the cockpit of his plane

Despite having only about one-fifth the money as his Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham is maintaining his position as the lead GOP challenger in the gubernatorial election a little more than three weeks away.

The secret weapon, according to Abraham’s campaign, is the Richland Parish-based congressman’s plane, which has allowed him to roughly quadruple campaign appearances in a single day — about 250 flights this year alone.

“It’s really been a godsend. The one thing you don’t have a lot of in a campaign is time,” said John Vick, Abraham’s campaign manager, waving his hands over a color-coded calendar stuffed full of possible events.

“The plane gives us a much wider range of options to fit in as much as possible in a day or a weekend. It has been crucial,” Vick said.

The congressman was unavailable over two weeks to discuss this issue.

Abraham and his Republican rival Eddie Rispone are vying to be the GOP candidate who faces incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards in the Nov. 16 general election should the only Democratic governor in the Deep South not win outright in the Oct. 12 open primary. Louisiana Republicans show up to the polls in far greater numbers and elect their own to all the statewide offices, with the exception of Edwards.

Rispone, who is funding his own campaign for the most part, spent $5.2 million since July 5, mostly on television commercials, and he reported having $6.3 million on Sept. 2 to spend in the remaining weeks before the Oct. 12 primary election to try and unseat Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Early voting begins Sept. 28 and ends Oct. 5.

Abraham, on the other hand, spent $1.2 million over the same time period and enters the last leg of the race with $1.1 million.

But Abraham has a plane, a single-engine Cirrus SR22 that seats four, and thus the ability to hit multiple markets in a single day. He arrives fresh and with plenty of time to spend with voters. Rispone has put about 30,000 miles on his car, according to his spokesman, getting to various events.

Abraham has been in the air 142 times in the 112 days since June 1, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, including trips to Baton Rouge, Monroe and Lafayette on Friday.

On Sept. 13, Abraham saw patients in the morning at his office in rural northeast Louisiana — he still treats a few longtime patients — flew to Alexandria, met with staff, was interviewed on television and attended a fundraiser. The next morning, Abraham flew to Baton Rouge to tailgate at the LSU-Northwestern State University game, then onto New Orleans for a Crime Fighters Forum in Kenner followed by a Pro-Life meet and greet. He returned to Baton Rouge for a service at Jefferson Baptist Church.

Vick says showing up in person at all the various events held by GOP grassroots groups and staying until the end without constantly checking his watch has gone a long way to nailing down the support of the parish executive committees for the party. Those are the people who put signs on their lawns and go out to vote, he added.

Though the state party organization has remained neutral, Abraham has nailed down endorsements from more than a dozen parish committees.

Vick said the success of the strategy is shown in their statistics, which documents mentions of the candidate’s name in television, newspaper and radio coverage.

Between June 1 and Tuesday, Abraham’s name appeared in 34% of the articles that focused on Louisiana gubernatorial election happenings while Rispone’s name appeared in 9.3% of those stories and Edwards’ as the governor was in 56.7%, according to Critical Mention, a New York City based company that tracks articles in real time.

During the first 17 days of September, Louisiana’s three gubernatorial candidates were mentioned 3,135 times with Rispone’s name appearing in 297 newspaper articles and television news stories, while Abraham’s was noted 945 times. Vick said that’s because when Abraham appears at some local event, the event gets coverage by local media.

While Vick said he wasn’t initially sold on all the plane travel — Abraham had insisted — he has come to see its benefits.

A doctor with good bedside patter, almost any conversation with Abraham inevitably will veer off into flying.

He got his license in 1983 at the age of 29. Abraham flies a 2017 Cirrus SR22, which cost $629,900 and rents for about $275 per hour. His plane is owned by Drake’s Landing Inc., a company Abraham owns. Other Cirrus SR22 owners, writing on an owners’ blog, estimated that the plane cost about $58 per hour to fly but about $426 per hour to own when hanger fees, insurance, maintenance and fuel are included in the calculation. Abraham is reimbursed by his campaign at about $225 per hour.

In addition to being Abraham’s passion, because of the rules, his flying hobby also is enriching.

That is, congressional and elections rules allow the reimbursed costs of using the plane to go directly in Abraham’s personal bank account.

His campaign paid the two-term congressman $12,550 on July 9 to fly to campaign events prior to July 4, according to state finance disclosures.

Before he hit the campaign trail, Abraham used his plane to commute to Washington, D.C., where he personally received $56,442 in recompense — an amount roughly triple the $17,267 claimed by his predecessor, Vance McAllister, who took commercial flights or drove, but didn’t return home as often, according to U.S. House records.

Part of the reason is how the U.S. House handles mileage reimbursements.

Since the founding of the Republic, congressmen have been reimbursed for travel between Washington and their home districts. The rules have never been straightforward and the amounts congressmen receive have always been fuzzy.

Abraham Lincoln, as a congressman, was famously criticized by the press in 1847 for claiming too many miles between his home in Springfield, Illinois, and the nation’s Capitol. (He apparently detoured through Kentucky to visit his wife’s family.) But then, Daniel Webster also was criticized for his mileage reimbursements.

What is clear is that representatives and senators can receive “mileage.” Though most congressmen fly commercially, which is paid for directly by the U.S. House, many drive their own cars and are reimbursed for mileage at 54.5 cents per mile. Like most mileage reimbursements, that money goes directly to the congressman. A few of the congressmen, three by the House’s latest but inconclusive count, fly their own planes. They are reimbursed $1.21 per mile under the U.S. General Services Administration guidelines. Similarly, that money is paid directly to the congressmen.

A typical commute for Abraham, who wears fiscal frugality as his political mantle, is from a private airport in suburban Manassas, Virginia, to Monroe, which is about 20 miles northwest of Abraham’s home near the rural crossroads of Alto on the Boeuf River.

The five-hour trip costs about $921.15, though that fluctuates slightly depending on the mileage rate at the time and how direct the route. A commercial flight, one way, between one of the three commercial airports in the Washington-Baltimore area cost about $350 and takes about 5 hours, changing planes in Atlanta.

Campaign manager Vick says a congressman’s job is really about constituent services. Abraham has been under fire during the campaign for missing more votes than anyone else in Congress this year. Vick notes that before announcing for governor, Abraham had one of the House’s highest vote totals. Nevertheless, Vick said, the most important job for a congressman is constituent services and Abraham’s plane helps.

Abraham’s congressional district, which was drawn in 2011 to ensure a Republican congressman, stretches from northeast Louisiana’s border with Arkansas, down the Mississippi River, then across the top of the Florida parishes to Washington Parish at the toe of the boot. The most direct route from Bogalusa on one end of the 4th Congressional District to Monroe, near the other end, is through Mississippi.

“What matters to constituents is constituent service. He’s their congressman and they expect to see him and talk to him,” Vick said. “The less time you spend getting to where you need to be, the more time you have to do what you have to do.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.