President Donald Trump loomed large over Louisiana’s governor’s race a day after Gov. John Bel Edwards fell short of winning Saturday’s primary outright, forcing him to face businessman Eddie Rispone in next month’s runoff.
Edwards and many of his biggest supporters thought he would win re-election Saturday night by taking at least 50% of the vote.
But Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, was held to 46.6%, while Rispone won a spot in the runoff with 27.4%. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham finished third with 23.6%, out of the money, and he promptly endorsed Rispone, a fellow Republican.
Miles Coleman, an LSU grad who is associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nationally-respected political newsletter and website at the University of Virginia, rated the Nov. 16 runoff a “tossup.”
Political analysts on Sunday said Trump’s late entrance into the race spelled the difference on Saturday.
About 200,000 more people voted in the primary compared to the 2015 runoff election that Edwards won, an increase of about 17%. An analysis on Sunday by Jim Kitchens, who was the governor’s pollster four years ago and was an independent consultant for his campaign this year, indicated that most of the 200,000 were white rural voters who voted for Rispone or Abraham.
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“That’s the Trump effect. He accomplished his task. He created a runoff,” said Kitchens, who is based in Florida.
On Saturday, Rispone said he received a congratulatory call from Trump just before going on stage at 10:30 p.m. to greet supporters at L’Auberge Hotel and Casino in Baton Rouge.
The president offered another boost early Sunday morning on Twitter.
“The Media is not talking about the big Republican victory last night in Louisiana where a sitting Democrat Governor was forced into a runoff by not getting 50%,” Trump wrote.
“Big upset! Now @EddieRispone, who will be a great Governor, will win!”
John Couvillon, an independent pollster based in Baton Rouge, said he thought that the recent push for Trump’s impeachment by Democrats in Washington hurt Edwards, even though the governor distanced himself from the effort.
Trump won the state by 20 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election and remains popular among conservative Louisiana voters. Republicans hold all the seats elected statewide, except governor, majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, along with every seat in the Congressional delegation with the exception of one specifically drawn to ensure a minority representative.
Trump punctuated his role by rallying Republican voters in Lake Charles on Friday night with a 90-minute show that repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet, four days after his son Donald Jr. rallied Republicans in Lafayette.
Edwards had counted on collecting at least 33% of the white vote to win the primary. An election-eve survey by veteran pollster Verne Kennedy for a group of businessmen showed the governor winning as much as 42% of the white vote.
But Edwards won only 31% of the white vote on Saturday, estimated Couvillon.
Greg Rigamer, a respected New Orleans-based pollster, on Thursday night had Edwards winning just under 50% overall.
“The atmospherics were not there for the first-primary victory that they deluded themselves into thinking,” Couvillon said of the Edwards campaign.
The Florida-based Kennedy was chastened on Sunday after predicting that Edwards would win the primary with at least 55% of the vote, a forecast that had buoyed many of the governor’s top supporters on Saturday. Since 1991, Kennedy has polled each Louisiana governor’s race for a group of businessmen that includes John Georges, the owner of The Advocate | The Times-Picayune.
“I’ve never been off by more than 2%,” Kennedy said. “Either the black vote was way low or Trump made a real difference.”
Couvillon’s analysis of the results indicated that Trump played an outsized role.
Couvillon estimated that black voters accounted for 26.5% of the overall ballots cast, which was only 0.5% below what Kennedy had forecast. Couvillon also estimated that black people gave 91% of their votes to Edwards, which was 1% more than Kennedy had forecast.
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Saturday night’s results mean that Rispone and Abraham combined for 51% of the overall vote. Adding the 0.8% won by Patrick “Live Wire” Landry, a Republican minor candidate, brought the Republican vote overall to almost 52%.
So the race begins with Edwards needing only 3.5% more to win the runoff, and with Rispone needing only to secure all the Republican votes in the primary to become Louisiana’s next governor.
Landry, a building engineer at a downtown New Orleans hotel and a part-time artist, said on Sunday he will vote for Rispone.
Referring to the governor, Landry said, “I’m happy to know he’s going to be fired next month.”
Gary Landrieu, who won 0.75% of the vote as an independent, had little good to say about Edwards on Sunday, accusing the governor of trying to evict Landrieu from the marina and shipyard he owns in New Orleans.
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Oscar “Omar” Dantzler, a Democrat who won 0.8%, declined to express his preference because he was unhappy with the newspaper’s treatment of him.
Even before the votes were counted, Robert E. Hogan, chairman of LSU’s political science department, said Rispone’s rise from political novice to Trump acolyte showed he hit a nerve with GOP voters, even as he refused to spell out his plans.
“Republican voters remain captivated by the idea of an outsider who can ‘fix’ the problems of government,” Hogan said in an email.
“Voters respond favorably to bumper-sticker platitudes about ‘bureaucrat’ and ‘big government,’” he wrote. “If you have the money to buy enough political ads that repeat such messages, it is possible to get voters to act on those predispositions.”
Rispone also showed no qualms in attacking Abraham, a three-term congressman, as “a career politician” who had “voted 300 times” with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, and had missed more votes than any other member of Congress this year while running for governor.
Rispone’s attacks prompted howls of protest from conservative political leaders, including radio talk-show host Moon Griffon and The Hayride, a conservative political organ.
But with his ads in heavy airplay, Rispone shot past Abraham late in the campaign.
“Negative campaigning works, especially when it is directed at a siting congressman,” Hogan said. “This suggests that voters harbor a deep well of anti-establishment sentiment that Rispone effectively leveraged.”
On Sunday, both remaining candidates met privately with their key advisers in Baton Rouge to plot strategy and plan to raise money. Rispone has an advantage. He spent more than $11 million of his own money in the primary and presumably can write more big checks in the runoff.
Rispone gained one addition to his campaign on Saturday night: He will now have State Police protection through Nov. 16.