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Eddie Rispone, photographed Friday, Dec. 13, 2019 next to a religious devotion area that he and his wife set up at their Baton Rouge home, spent $13.5 million to go from being an unknown businessman to becoming the favored Republican candidate backed wholeheartedly by President Donald Trump, only to fall short to incumbent John Bel Edwards by 40,000 votes out of 1.5 million cast on Nov. 16. A man of deep Catholic faith, he expressed no major regrets about the campaign and said he will not run for governor again but will want to stay engaged in Louisiana politics somehow.

After losing the governor’s race by roughly 40,000 votes last year, long-time GOP donor and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone quickly started looking for his next move in state politics.

He landed on the Republican State Central Committee, a sprawling organization that makes up the infrastructure of the state Republican party. He recruited candidates, tapping trusted lawmakers to find party activists and elected officials who would run, and actually show up to meetings, after discovering a host of the members routinely missed the party meetings that happen a few times a year.

After successfully electing several candidates to the committee in December, Rispone is now looking to take even more control over the Louisiana GOP, running for chair of the party.

“It was never my intention to run but recognizing the substantial challenges we face as a body and as a party, I believe we need someone with major business and large organizational skills to ensure the party can be the most effective in helping elect conservatives in the future,” Rispone said in an email to party officials.

“We must refocus our priorities on recruitment, registration, and turnout operations. We must instill fiscal responsibility, budget transparency, and controls on expenditures. We must restore confidence among the donor community by being good stewards of contributions and fulfilling promises.”

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Rispone said he’s concerned with lack of attendance by committee members and said the party was “out-worked and out-spent” in the 2019 governor’s race. Gov. John Bel Edwards ran up the score in cities that comprise his base to beat Rispone in the runoff, despite President Donald Trump rallying multiple times for the Republican. Rispone pointed to millions of dollars the Democratic party spent on get-out-the-vote efforts, suggesting the GOP couldn’t keep pace.

The decision to run pits Rispone against Louis Gurvich, a New Orleans businessman who was elected to lead the party in 2018, succeeding the long-time party chair Roger Villere, who is now the Republican National Committeeman for Louisiana. Gurvich said he’s running again.

“I would say I disagree with many of the assertions made in his letter,” Gurvich said in an interview. “But it’s certainly his right to make those assertions.

“May the best man win,” he added.

Anthony Ramirez, who ran Rispone’s communications during the 2019 governor’s race, said after reviewing the results of the race, “we saw that the Republican party was clearly outworked on the ground.” And after poring through attendance records, they discovered nearly 40% of the Republican State Central Committee didn’t attend a single meeting last year.

Beyond that, he said Rispone wants to restore “fiscal responsibility.” He said many other state parties across the country have restrictions on people in party leadership profiting off races, through consulting work or other means. Many of Louisiana’s GOP committee members and other top party officials offer consulting services to candidates on the side.

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“I do know there’s people within the body of the Republican party that are more or less operating for profit, and that’s something that needs to be addressed,” Ramirez said. “It’s a big conflict of interest if someone who is elected to the governing board of the party is engaging in consulting for compensation.”

Mike Bayham, the secretary for the state GOP, said he wants to hear out Rispone and Gurvich before deciding who he’ll support. But Bayham said the party has been “worse to each other than we have been to Democrats.” In his race for Republican State Central Committee in New Orleans, Bayham drew a candidate that was recruited by Lenar Whitney, the Republican National Committeewoman, according to a list of Whitney-backed candidates obtained by the Advocate. 

Whitney, who is rumored to be considering a run for party chair, did not respond to messages seeking comment. 

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As part of the race for state central committee – typically low-profile, low-wattage affairs that are decided by a few dozen votes – Bayham said he was hit with an “ugly” mailer that attacked his weight, which he says was sent by someone other than his opponent. (Spending on Republican State Central Committee races doesn’t require disclosure under Louisiana’s ethics laws, like other campaign spending.)

“This is what this party does. We cannibalize ourselves because this is about control and contracts and not about defeating the Democrats,” Bayham said. “We have to see who is going to finally change the culture of this party. Is Louis prepared to do it or is an outsider like Rispone prepared to do it.”

Villere said in an interview he had “nothing to do with” the mailer attacking Bayham, calling it “reprehensible.”

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After stepping down as party chair in 2018, Villere dove into political consulting work through CRV Consulting, who he runs alongside Phil Capitano, the former mayor of Kenner who was arrested this summer after police said he used his vehicle to ram the back of a woman’s car during a dispute over allegedly stolen property. Villere and Capitano also run the Louisiana Conservative Republican Coalition, which is registered as a nonprofit and which doles out endorsements to Republican candidates. It endorsed Capitano in his bid for re-election to the Republican State Central Committee this year, but Capitano was unseated by Keith Conley, a longtime Jefferson Parish government official.

State Rep. Mark Wright, a Covington Republican, said Villere’s group sent a mailer endorsing his opponent for the Republican State Central Committee, using “the Republican party seal or something that looks exactly like it.”

Wright won easily, but he said he’s troubled by consultants getting parish or state party positions and doing consulting work at the same time, leveraging their influence as a party leader.

Before Rispone entered the race for party chair officially, Wright said he’d be the favorite if he ran.

“He’s almost the perfect person to do this because he’s got credibility because he put in millions of dollars running for governor,” Wright said in a recent interview. 

Villere disputed that the logo for his group looks like the Republican party logo, and said there’s nothing improper about his consulting work and endorsements. He said he supported Wright’s opponent because Wright opposed Villere’s election as RNC Committeeman earlier this year.

“This is America. We have a right to go into business. I don’t do consulting work for the party,” he said, noting party bylaws prohibit that.

“I think that’s not problematic at all,” he added of his private sector work. “I think that’s completely legitimate and legal.”

Villere, who oversaw a transition in Louisiana from Democratic-leaning to solidly Republican, said Gurvich has made significant strides in pumping up GOP registration to over a million. He said he hasn’t decided who he’ll support in the race for chair.

“I have made up my mind I’m going to be against Ripsone,” Villere said. “I thought he was a poor candidate (for governor) … You need a party chair who can bring people together. Why would you elect a party chair who refused help in the runoff and didn’t bring people together in his own race?”

Scott Wilfong, a longtime Republican activist and consultant who lost his race for the state central committee this month, said he thinks Rispone “wants to stay relevant” after spending millions of his own money on the governor’s race, earning name identification among voters.

“I believe he’s still a little bitter from losing the governor’s race,” Wilfong said.

But Wilfong also said the party lost the governor’s race last year, and he said the party hasn’t been able to raise money like it should.

“We lost the governor’s race,” Wilfong said. “Which I don’t blame Louis for, but the fact is we didn’t pick up the biggest prize.”

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com