Clay Higgins stumping for Ralph Abraham

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., stumps for U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, one of two major Republican candidates for governor, in Eunice on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. 

EUNICE – With 10 days until the election in the Louisiana governor’s race, Republican candidate Ralph Abraham got an early start on a long list of campaign events Wednesday, flying his single-engine plane with U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins to a 7 a.m. breakfast in Eunice, where the two implored supporters to go vote in the Oct. 12 primary.

Abraham, a Republican congressman from Alto, embarked on a statewide get-out-the-vote tour with events planned in DeRidder, Bossier City and Monroe. It comes in the midst of early voting for the primary, which runs through Saturday. This week, Abraham’s campaign said he will hit 18 cities across the state, as he tries to gin up enthusiasm among Republican voters in the waning days of the race – and ward off his Republican challenger, Eddie Rispone, who has gained in the polls.

“It’s going to be nonstop until election day,” Abraham's political strategist Lionel Rainey said. “We’re going to travel the whole state until the election bell goes off.”

Abraham’s campaign is facing headwinds as the election approaches.

For months, Abraham has polled in second place behind Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and appeared likely to advance to a runoff with the incumbent.

But Rispone, his main Republican challenger, has poured millions of his own money into TV advertising, including an attack ad launched last month, prompting Abraham to hit back with a response ad this week calling Rispone “desperate” and accusing him of lying.

Rispone has a huge funding advantage over Abraham, and on Saturday, Abraham loaned his campaign $50,000 of his own money, an effort he said was aimed at making sure his campaign didn’t have to worry about running out of funds in the final stretch.

Polls now show Abraham and Rispone neck and neck.

Abraham’s campaign is preparing for a close battle with his Republican challenger for the coveted second-place spot, which would only matter if Edwards fails to win the election outright in the primary with more than 50% of the vote.

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At Nick’s on Second Street, a seafood restaurant in Eunice, several dozen supporters sipped coffee from styrofoam cups and ate scrambled eggs and bacon early Wednesday morning as they listened to Higgins and Abraham decry the state of the oil industry and Louisiana’s economy.

Eunice, a small Acadiana town northwest of Lafayette that is part of the region that has lagged economically largely because of a downturn in oil prices, voted heavily for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections. The Acadiana region is seen as an important area for Republicans to turn out voters in the governor’s race.

State Rep. Phillip Devillier, R-Eunice, and House GOP Majority Leader Lance Harris, of Alexandria, warmed up the crowd for the congressmen.

Higgins, sporting his customary cowboy hat and a bracelet that read, “Patriot,” invoked scripture in his speech to the crowd, at one point saying God told him Abraham is the right choice for governor.

"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. This is the main I intend to put as the bright light in the governor’s mansion to lead us to economic prosperity,’” Higgins said.

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Higgins, who made his name as the St. Landry Parish sheriff's deputy who filmed Crime Stoppers videos that went viral, is the only member of the Republican Congressional delegation to endorse one of the two Republicans in the governor’s race. Higgins, of Port Barré, is a constituent of Abraham's as congressmen do not have to live in the district they represent. Edwards, whose personal residence is in the Tangipahoa Parish of Town of Roseland, also is a constituent.

Higgins made the endorsement only after Rispone launched an attack ad on Abraham last month, rankling some Republicans who want the candidates to avoid sniping at each other and instead focus on making sure Edwards doesn’t win a second term.

In an interview after his stump speech, Higgins said he met with Rispone early on in the race, and the Baton Rouge businessman promised Higgins he would “never ever, ever run a negative ad against Ralph Abraham,” according to Higgins. When Rispone broke that promise with his attack ad on Abraham, accusing him of not being loyal enough to Trump and tarnishing his conservative credentials, Higgins said that’s when God told him to endorse Abraham.

Rispone’s campaign did not immediately respond to the comments.

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Abraham said turning out the vote in small, rural areas like Eunice is critical to a Republican victory in the governor’s race. He spent time during his speech rebutting Rispone’s attack ads, insisting he did, in fact, vote in favor of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and telling supporters the ads lack context.

The ads also accuse him of breaking a promise to donate his congressional salary to charity. While Abraham said Wednesday he does donate his salary to charity, his Congressional office confirmed earlier this year he stopped donating it after his first term.

Trump weighs in on governor's race on Twitter, supports both Abraham and Rispone

He also repeatedly invoked Trump, who in a Twitter message Tuesday urged Republicans to vote for Abraham or Rispone in the race and slammed Edwards. Trump again tweeted on Wednesday that, “your 2nd Amendment, and much else, is at stake,” though all three candidates are generally opposed to gun restrictions.

Edwards on Wednesday used the tweets as a fundraising opportunity, asking potential donors to help "fight back." 

Baton Rouge pollster Bernie Pinsonat said the tightening between the two Republicans in the race may not matter. Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, is polling in the high 40s, near the 50% threshold he needs to hit on election day to win outright.

If he doesn't win on Oct. 12, he will likely face either Abraham or Rispone in a Nov. 16 runoff election. 

Abraham’s lack of funding has dogged him from the beginning of the race, something Pinsonat ascribed to representing a poorer, rural part of the state, away from the financial centers of New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

“He was a congressman from an area that doesn’t have a lot of money. That was always going to be the problem,” Pinsonat said, adding, “It takes money to get well-known across the state.”

Abraham had $1.4 million at the beginning of September, far less than the $6.3 million posted by Rispone and $5.7 million the governor had. The next fundraising reports are due at 12 a.m. Thursday, and Higgins dismissed the disparity in funding.

“If money won everything Jeb Bush would be your president and Scott Angelle would be your congressman,” Higgins said, the latter referring to his veteran Republican opponent in the 2016 race for Louisiana’s U.S. Third Congressional District.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com