Early one Sunday morning in October, four political advisers passed through the white front doors of the Governor’s Mansion.
Gov. John Bel Edwards was waiting in the foyer.
As they began to follow him to his office, first lady Donna Edwards interrupted from the dining room.
“Do you want breakfast?” she called out.
“No,” the governor replied, answering for the advisers. They didn’t have time for breakfast. They had work to do.
It was Oct. 13, the morning after the jungle primary. Edwards had expected to win reelection the night before, but he had fallen 3.4 percentage points short of the 50% needed to claim victory. Now his team had to devise a strategy to stop Republican businessman Eddie Rispone from surging past them in the Nov. 16 runoff. Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the other Republican candidate, had won 51% of the vote combined, a clear warning sign to the governor.
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Gov. John Bel Edwards receives a concession call from his Republican challenger, Eddie Rispone, at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge on Nov. 16, 2019. Video via Lynda Woolard
By the time Edwards and his advisers broke for lunch, they had settled on a plan. It contained three key elements. One was to find a way to pump up the lackluster turnout of black voters in the primary by at least 3 percentage points in the runoff. Black people form the core of the governor’s Democratic base.
Another element was to continue to keep the focus squarely on Louisiana issues, a strength for a governor who enjoyed a 56% approval rating with voters.
The other element was to win at least 10% of the vote that went to Abraham, who had finished third and out of the money in the Oct. 12 primary. President Donald Trump had come to Lake Charles the night before the primary to fire up his base against Edwards, a group that included Abraham’s voters.
But Rispone had savaged the congressman with misleading attack ads for a month before the primary. And although Abraham had immediately endorsed Rispone in the runoff, Edwards and his advisers thought the assault created an opening for the governor to win over some of Abraham’s voters in northeast Louisiana.
Just after Edwards and his team wound up their gathering, Rispone was meeting with his advisers across town in a conference room at L’Auberge Casino and Hotel, where they celebrated Rispone’s second-place finish the night before.
After some discussion, they agreed that Rispone had to continue to link himself to Trump and try to make the election a choice between a Republican or a Democrat, “a liberal or a conservative, a trial lawyer or a businessman,” as Rispone would put it.
Never before has a president of the United States campaigned so hard for a Louisiana gubernatorial candidate.
This strategy, they believed, would blunt Edwards’ attempts to lure Abraham voters and would offset a higher black voter turnout.
Over the next 34 days, the two sides would engage in the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat, fighting over a sliver of votes that would decide the contest. Trump would return to Louisiana twice more, lambaste Edwards, often with falsehoods, and put the governor’s race in the national spotlight. But in the end, after 1,508,784 voters cast ballots, Edwards would eke out a 40,212-vote victory, 51.33% to 48.67%.
This account is based on interviews with Edwards, officials from all three campaigns and two dozen other key players. Rispone and Abraham declined interview requests.
The accidental governor
The 2019 governor’s race played out against this backdrop: Many Republicans viewed Edwards as an “accidental” governor, believing he had pulled off his long-shot victory in 2015 only because Republicans could not overcome a bitter primary campaign and because a sex scandal had weighed down then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Edwards’ Republican runoff opponent.
Even before Edwards took office, Republicans flexed their muscle in the Louisiana House, breaking with tradition by selecting a speaker not anointed by the governor. And over the next two years, they repeatedly resisted Edwards’ efforts to raise the sales tax or reform the state income tax to provide a long-term solution to the budget woes inherited from Edwards’ Republican predecessor, Gov. Bobby Jindal.
During a seventh special session, lawmakers in the House finally stabilized the budget in June 2018 when they agreed to a bill that renewed a sales tax increase for seven years.
That move cleared the decks for the 2019 governor’s race.
By then, several Republicans were making the rounds to gauge their chances.
One of them was Abraham, a no-nonsense, grandfatherly physician who had an inspiring personal story. He had grown up on a farm in Richland Parish, just east of Monroe, worked as a veterinarian, served in the National Guard, became a doctor and then captured the 5th Congressional District seat in 2014. He easily won reelection in 2016 and 2018.
Abraham had come to Baton Rouge on Feb. 18, 2018, to meet with a key power broker, contractor Lane Grigsby, who would become a controversial figure during the governor’s race when he told a reporter that he was a “kingmaker.”
When Abraham went to Grigsby’s office on Airline Highway that day, the contractor kept him waiting for nearly 30 minutes. When the congressman finally entered Grigsby’s office, he found Rispone there as well. After a 45-minute conversation, Grigsby had heard enough.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think Ralph Abramson will ever be governor,” he said, adding to the insult by mispronouncing the congressman’s name.
Abraham would learn afterward that Rispone considered Grigsby his mentor.
On Oct. 10, 2018, Rispone filed papers to run for governor.
At the time, he was known in political circles mainly for being a big donor for conservative causes and for his work with Jindal to push school vouchers and make K-12 schools more accountable.
Rispone also had an impressive up-from-the-bootstraps personal story, having grown up in a big household in north Baton Rouge that hardly had enough money to scrape by. He had worked his way through LSU and then started his own electrical contracting company, earning a fortune in the process, enough to self-finance his campaign for governor.
“I think we can do better. I know we can do better,” he told Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte in announcing his bid.
By that time, the biggest question was whether a big-name Republican would join the race, namely U.S. Sen. John Kennedy. But Kennedy announced on Dec. 3 that he would pass it up.
A day later, Abraham was at the Monroe airport, where he kept the private airplane he uses for charitable rescue missions.
“Can I win?” he asked Luke Letlow, his chief of staff.
“Yes,” replied Letlow, “there’s a definite path to victory.”
It called for Abraham to roll up a big margin in his congressional district. Knowing he would probably be underfunded, Abraham would try to tack on enough other votes through retail politicking with local officials and party activists around the state, especially in the conservative areas of Acadiana.
“All right, let’s do it,” Abraham told Letlow. He felt a call to duty to put the state’s top office in a conservative’s hands.
Strategies to victory
Abraham and Rispone would both depict Edwards as a tax-and-spend liberal, using the sales tax increases he sought and signed into law as Exhibit A.
Edwards launched his reelection with a campaign video on Jan. 21. He touted his ability to work with anyone to solve Louisiana’s problems and, continuing a campaign slogan from 2015, “to put people first.”
He was the only Democratic governor in the Deep South and the only Democrat to hold statewide office in Louisiana. But still, he appeared to be a formidable foe. Not only had he vanquished three Republican rivals in 2015, he had proven to be a steady, competent governor. Polls showed him within striking distance of winning the primary outright.
And unlike the 2015 primary, Edwards would be well-funded this time. By early 2019, he had raised an impressive $12 million for his reelection campaign from thousands of contributors and numerous interest groups with business before the state.
Rispone, however, nearly matched that sum overnight, loaning his campaign $10.5 million.
Edwards and Abraham engaged in an early skirmish on April 11 during the annual meeting of the Public Affairs Research Council in Baton Rouge.
“He just jacks up taxes over and over again,” Abraham told the crowd. But, showing he wasn’t ready for prime time, Abraham mostly read his answers to the questions they both had received in advance.
Rispone skipped the event. This would become a pattern: He was following a script from his out-of-state campaign consultants, who dismissed the importance of building grassroots support, engaging with reporters and local audiences or even spelling out his ideas. What mattered was a powerful pro-Trump message conveyed through television and digital advertising.
On May 1, the three candidates met for the first time at Oil and Natural Gas Industry Day across the street from the State Capitol, underneath a tent that shielded a broiling sun.
By then, the Rispone campaign was engaged in an internal debate that would play a key role in the race’s final outcome: When should the businessman introduce himself to voters by launching his advertising campaign?
Voters didn’t know him, with polls showing him capturing only 5% to 8% of the vote, compared with about 20% for Abraham. Only one of the two could make a runoff with Edwards.
Abraham’s campaign advisers worried Rispone would begin to air his ads in May — or June at the latest. Thanks to his personal wealth, Rispone could spend an initial $1.5 million and likely pull so many conservative voters from Abraham that Rispone could come close to overtaking the congressman or even pass him.
Either development, Abraham’s advisers feared, would discourage potential donors from opening their checkbooks for Abraham and possibly keep him from holding off Rispone.
Edwards' campaign officials shared this thinking.
“Why wouldn’t you spend $1 million to $2 million, bump up 10 points, do a poll and then shut down Abraham’s fundraising?” Jared Arsement, Edwards’ media consultant, asked privately on July 3. “Every day you’re not spending money, you’re letting him [Abraham] live. Why not deprive him of oxygen if you can?”
The Rispone campaign almost pulled the trigger to begin advertising in June. But pollster Tony Fabrizio and political strategist Austin Chambers feared that if Rispone shot up too quickly, trial lawyers allied with the governor would knock him down with a nasty negative campaign through Gumbo PAC, the pro-Edwards super political action committee.
Rispone’s advisers believed Edwards and his political allies would rather face Abraham. Indeed, the Edwards campaign thought Abraham would be vulnerable because he had been a major prescriber of opioids as a doctor and also owned a pharmacy nearby that dispensed the dangerous drugs.
The Rispone campaign finally launched its first ad on July 22. The Edwards and Abraham campaigns had expected Rispone to introduce himself with a strong bio spot. Instead, the businessman sought to make the race all about the president.
The thinking behind the ad was this: The only path for a Rispone victory was to make the race an ideological choice by nationalizing it. If the campaign centered on job performance and Louisiana issues, Rispone would lose. People liked the governor’s handling of the economy, his expansion of Medicaid to the working poor, the teacher pay raise and increased money for education.
“Hi, I’m Eddie Rispone,” he began, sitting on the back of a pickup truck, clad in blue jeans and a work shirt. “I supported President Trump against Hillary.” To emphasize the point, “Trump supporter” appeared on the screen, and viewers could see a Trump sticker strategically placed on the back window of the truck’s cab. In all, the ad mentioned Trump 11 times.
Rispone pulled some voters off Abraham, but not enough, going from 6% to only 11% in the businessman’s internal polling.
Within a couple of weeks, Lionel Rainey III, Abraham’s political consultant, felt relieved. He took soundings after the ad's launch and heard nothing good about it.
“You have only once chance to make a first impression, and they spent over $1 million giving the voters a very bad impression of Eddie,” he said later.
Regardless of who wins the governor's race, GOP seeking more conservative super majority in Louisiana.
By the end of August, Rispone’s political pros had concluded that only one approach could slingshot their candidate past Abraham — a series of attacks.
They broached the idea with Rispone. He didn’t like it. He had promised several times not to go negative against Abraham, and Abraham had made a similar pledge. Seared in the minds of Republicans was the 2015 outcome. Vitter tore up his Republican challengers, then-Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and then-Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, and they punched back, hard. Neither Angelle nor Dardenne endorsed Vitter in the runoff, and he lost badly to Edwards.
Rispone overcame his misgivings. He believed he was the best candidate for governor. So he had to blast Abraham.
The congressman first saw the ad on Sept. 16 on Rainey’s cellphone as they were about to start a prep session for the first televised debate of the three candidates. The ad made the congressman laugh in disbelief — it was so shocking and brazen. Voters couldn’t buy it, could they?
“Yessss!!!” was the response of Eric Holl, the Edwards campaign’s spokesman, when he saw it that day in his office in downtown Baton Rouge.
The 30-second spot hit Abraham on five issues, but the one that touched a nerve was the accusation that the congressman was a lackey of the Democratic House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi — for conservatives, the symbol of everything wrong with America. Abraham, the ad said, had voted with her “more than 300 times.”
It was true. But every single member of Congress had voted more than 300 times with Pelosi on routine votes.
The Louisiana Republican Party had endorsed both Abraham and Rispone. Now, Abraham and his aides immediately called Louis Gurvich, the chairman of the state party, and other GOP leaders to demand that they withdraw the Rispone endorsement. The ad was a blatant lie, Abraham told them.
Gurvich and the others took no action.
But conservative radio talk-show host Moon Griffon did, worried that Rispone was ensuring a repeat of 2015.
“It makes no sense to attack a Republican like this,” Griffon told listeners the next day. “It’s ridiculous. ... Eddie, I thought you were better than this.”
The day after that, U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, also sided with Abraham.
Higgins explained why later: "I went to a bended knee a couple of weeks ago and the Lord spoke clearly to my heart. He said, ‘Rise up and support your friend. This is the man I intend to lead my children out of economic lagging and economic suffering.’ ”
But the Rispone ad worked. Within a week, Abraham went from holding a 2-point advantage over Rispone to being down by 5 points. Tying Abraham to Pelosi was especially effective.
Abraham tried to fight back, broadcasting an ad a week later that called Rispone “desperate.”
But the congressman couldn’t match the businessman’s self-funded firepower.
On the night of the primary, Oct. 12, Rispone led Abraham, 27.4% to 23.6%. But Edwards won only 46.6% and would face Rispone in the runoff.
And now, the runoff
Now the question became whether Edwards could capture at least 10% of Abraham’s 317,149 votes and whether he could boost the turnout of black voters, who comprised only 27.4% of the primary electorate. The answer to these questions would decide the election.
On Oct. 16, the Edwards campaign sent Donna Edwards deep into Abraham territory, to the annual banquet of Life Choices, an anti-abortion group that promoted adoption as an alternative to abortion.
When she got up to speak, Richard Hartley, the governor's aide who arranged the event, could sense the crowd’s suspicion. Her husband was a “liberal” Democrat.
Donna recounted a story she and her husband had told during the 2015 governor’s race, about the decision they faced after learning that Donna was pregnant with a child who would have spina bifida. Their doctor recommended to Donna that they abort the fetus. But they said no, Donna would give birth to their daughter, Samantha. Donna concluded by noting that Samantha was now married, healthy and working.
Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, was the next speaker. Her talk was so powerful that he joked about Donna, “And she’s in what political party?"
Four days later, Hartley arranged for the Edwardses to attend services at a Pentecostal church in Monroe as well as the area’s biggest Baptist church. That night, they worshipped at Pentecostals of the Twin Cities, a charismatic church in West Monroe.
Afterward, Mark Cooper, Edwards’ chief of staff, was struck by how many people warmly greeted the first couple afterward and wanted a photo.
A day later, on Oct. 21, Hartley took the governor for lunch to Firehouse Subs in Monroe, a hangout for political types, followed by stops at Aron’s Pharmacy and the Magic Grill, where he mingled with Abraham voters. At 6 p.m., Edwards spoke to 500 people at a fish fry at the Lingo Community Center in Oak Grove, the seat of West Carroll Parish.
“You could just tell that people started liking the governor,” Randy Morris, owner of West Carroll Health Systems, sponsor of the event, said later.
On Oct. 24, Morris received an unexpected phone call. It was from Dustin Morris, a 36-year-old farmer in Richland Parish and the husband of Abraham’s daughter, Ashley. Dustin Morris wanted to meet with the governor. It took place the following week at the Ruston airport.
“Governor, we have some philosophical differences,” Dustin Morris said, “but we’re going to support you because Rispone’s campaign was disrespectful for attacking my father-in-law and my family, and we have no respect for him because of that.”
“Did Dr. Abraham send you?" Edwards asked.
“No,” replied Dustin Morris. “He knew I was coming, but I came on my own.”
The meeting ended with Dustin Morris writing a $5,000 check to the governor’s campaign. The contribution became news a week later when Greg Hilburn reported it for Gannett newspapers.
Though he endorsed Rispone immediately, Abraham remained upset with Rispone’s blistering attacks and wouldn’t answer when the businessman first called a week after the primary.
The two men didn’t talk until after the congressman succeeded in arranging for Trump to visit Monroe. At the rally, Abraham gave only a brief endorsement for Rispone.
In the meantime, Scott Arceneaux, a Louisiana native, had returned from Florida to oversee the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote effort, as he did in the 2015 runoff.
Under Arceneaux, the party was targeting 220,000 black voters who had voted in the 2016 or the 2018 elections but had stayed home for this year’s primary.
Nonprofit groups — including Together Louisiana and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice — were mounting their own get-out-the-vote efforts. So did black elected officials and inner-city churches throughout the state.
Recent polls say Saturday’s election for governor is a toss-up.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who was at a climate festival in Copenhagen, Denmark, for the primary, had activated her political action committee, Action New Orleans, to make phone calls, knock on doors and send out texts.
“People are fearful of what could be if we do not get out in record numbers to reelect this governor,” she said after worshipping at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church with Edwards on the Sunday before the runoff.
Gumbo PAC, directed by political operative Trey Ourso, was pounding “Phony Rispone” with mailers and TV ads that resonated with voters.
All the pieces were falling into place for Edwards.
The final day
As he had done four years earlier, Edwards had lunch at Mandina’s in New Orleans on election day with several buddies.
Polls closed at 8 p.m., and it was clearly a nail-biter. At 9:34 p.m., Rispone clung to the narrowest of leads, 50.1% to 49.9%, with 88% of the vote counted. Donna Edwards, sitting in a second-floor conference room at the Renaissance Hotel, looked stricken.
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At that same moment, pollster and demographer John Couvillon was calculating figures in his head that he had jotted down on a white notepad on the set of WVLA-TV in Baton Rouge. Rispone may have been leading, but about half the precincts of Edwards strongholds in Caddo, East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes remained uncounted.
Couvillon notified the producers that he was ready to call the race.
“Gov. John Bel Edwards has been reelected,” he told viewers.
The news flashed across social media and by word of mouth throughout the Renaissance.
Donna Edwards walked into the campaign’s war room.
Everyone cheered and whooped. The first lady put her hands to her eyes, which had begun to well with tears.
At 9:48 p.m, the Stevie Wonder hit,” Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” boomed throughout the hotel ballroom.
Two minutes later, Richard Carbo, Edwards’ campaign manager, felt his phone vibrate as he stood in the war room. Bryan Reed, Rispone’s campaign manager, was calling.
“This is Eddie,” Carbo told the governor.
As Edwards put the phone to his ear, the room hushed. Rispone was conceding the election.
“Thank you very much; I appreciate the call,” the governor said.
“How sweet it is!” he told his supporters one floor down in the ballroom.
An hour later, Edwards was sitting on a second-floor balcony at the Governor’s Mansion, toasting the victory with bourbon and cigars with five buddies from West Point. They stayed up until 2 a.m.
Too excited to sleep, Edwards awoke at 5 a.m. and began answering the 500-plus texts he had received. At noon, he returned a reporter’s call and said he doubted he would hear from Trump. “I don’t know how you go from saying what he said and call me,” Edwards said.
After lunch the next day, a Monday, Edwards was driving with Donna in his 1966 Chevy pickup to their home in Roseland in Tangipahoa Parish for some downtime. He answered his phone.
“Do you have time to talk to the president?” a White House operator asked.
Trump couldn’t have been nicer. He congratulated Edwards, saying he had run a hell of a race. Now that the election was over, Trump wanted to resume their good working relationship. Edwards agreed.
When the two-minute call was over, John Bel and Donna Edwards fist-bumped and smiled at each other. The governor then turned his attention to the road ahead of him.
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Staff writers Sam Karlin, Will Sentell, Elizabeth Crisp and Capital News Bureau Chief Mark Ballard contributed to this article.