BOSSIER CITY — Bringing his rollicking road show to Bossier City on Thursday night, President Donald Trump mocked Democrats in Washington, boasted about the country’s low unemployment rate and urged the raucous crowd to vote on Saturday for Eddie Rispone, the Republican candidate for governor.
Trump, in his third visit to Louisiana over the past month, said the election mattered to all of his supporters.
“In two days, I really need you to send a message to the corrupt Democrats in Washington,” Trump said during his hour-long appearance.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, Rispone’s Democratic opponent, appears to have a slight advantage in the election. All public polls have shown him with a narrow lead over Rispone, but some have shown him below 50%, which is an indication that the governor might well fall short.
As he did before Trump’s rallies in Lake Charles and Monroe, Edwards did his best to preempt the president on Thursday, speaking to reporters just across the Red River in Shreveport earlier in the day.
Edwards said Trump had come to Louisiana once again because Rispone has no plan to move the state forward.
Saturday’s election is the final race of the 2019 political season. Trump campaigned in favor of the Republican candidates in Mississippi (Tate Reeves won); in Kentucky (Gov. Matt Bevin lost); and now is fully behind Rispone, who has wrapped the president in a warm embrace throughout his campaign.
“We have to fire our liberal, socialist leaning governor, John Bel Edwards,” Rispone said when Trump brought him out. “You can vote for me and send a message to Washington.”
Given the high stakes, both parties have deployed political operatives to Louisiana in recent days, and both sides have poured millions of dollars into the race over the past month.
“Every vote is going to count,” said state Treasurer John Schroder, one of the warmup speakers Thursday night.
The Secretary of State's Office is predicting a 51% turnout for the runoff, up from 46% during the primary and up sharply from the 40% turnout in the 2015 runoff, when Edwards defeated then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, 56% to 44%.
In many ways, Saturday’s election will turn on this question: Will Louisiana voters elect a Democrat they mostly like, or will they turn toward a candidate from the political party that most of them prefer?
Trump repeatedly asked them to vote for the party. He called Edwards “a radical” and, echoing Rispone, said he should be fired.
The president criticized Democrats and the impeachment inquiry stemming from his demand that the government of Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
“Democrats are trying to overthrow the last election because they know they’re not going to win the next election,” Trump said. “The Democrats are trying to stop me because I’m fighting for you.”
“Four more years! Four more years!” chanted the crowd, which stayed on its feet for the first half of Trump’s speech.
Trump angrily denied that he did anything wrong, much less an impeachable offense. Louisiana’s Republicans in Washington have stood solidly behind the president.
Rispone has defended Trump, while Edwards has tried to keep the focus on Louisiana issues.
At Trump’s urging, the crowd cheered the military and booed Democrats and the “fake” media.
“Tell the truth!” shouted a man in the stands at the media.
Trump uttered more than one falsehood during his remarks, calling Edwards pro-abortion (he actually had a perfect anti-abortion voting record in the state Legislature and signed into law this year a strict anti-abortion bill) and saying that the governor opposes the 2nd amendment.
One key to the outcome Saturday is whether Edwards can secure at least 10% of the votes won by U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the Republican who finished third and out of the money in the primary. Abraham appeared briefly Thursday night to praise Trump and tell everyone to “vote for Eddie” on Saturday.
A second key is whether black voters, who constitute about 57% of Democratic voters, will turn out in big numbers on Saturday. Edwards received encouraging news when black voters accounted for 31% of all voters during the seven-day early voting period that ended Saturday, up from 25% during the primary’s early voting period.
Powering Edwards is his 54% approval rating. In most states, this would be good enough for him to win reelection comfortably. But not in red Louisiana where Republicans are closing in on a super-majority in both the House and the Senate, and where Republicans hold all other statewide elected offices.
Although Trump remains a divisive figure, one thing is clear: His supporters are nothing but fervent, although they didn’t quite fill the CenturyLink Center, which has a capacity of 14,000. Many of them had arrived to the arena by 9 a.m. on Thursday, and by 3 p.m., the parking lot was full for the scheduled 7 p.m. event. Vendors sold Trump caps and T-shirts in the parking lot as if it were the latest concert stop for a pop star.
“He’s against corrupt politicians,” said Jarred Montgomery, a Trump hat firmly atop his head as he waited in the long line before the rally. “He wants to clean house.”
Montgomery, however, said he didn’t know much about Rispone, a businessman from Baton Rouge who has never sought office before.
Clearly not everyone in the arena will vote in Saturday’s election. One speaker elicited loud cheers when he asked if there were any Texans in the house. But a mention of the LSU Tigers drew even bigger cheers.
Edwards is attempting to defy the laws of political gravity for the second time in a state where other Democrats have averaged only 39% in statewide contests since 2007, according to Michael Henderson, an LSU political science professor. Trump won Louisiana with 58% in the 2016 presidential election.
Attempted to inoculate himself against Trump’s expected attacks, Edwards emphasized to journalists at the AFL-CIO’s office in Shreveport that he has been a hunter his entire life — he said he received a shotgun as a Christmas present when he was 9 — worked with Republicans in the Legislature to turn a budget deficit into a surplus and dismissed claims that he is a “liberal.”
“The people of Louisiana know better than that,” he said. “I am squarely in the middle of the political spectrum.”
Edwards hammered Rispone for rarely meeting with reporters during the runoff and providing scarce details on his plans if elected.
“Obviously, he’s trying to nationalize this race because that’s the only shot he has,” Edwards said of his Republican opponent. “He cannot win this race based on Louisiana issues because he hasn’t demonstrated any knowledge of how state government works. He doesn’t have any vision for the state of Louisiana, and to the extent that he spoken with any specificity, they sound an awful lot like the warmed-over failed policies of Bobby Jindal.”
Republicans have expressed confidence that Trump has energized enough conservatives to vote for Rispone.
But Miles Coleman, handicapping the race for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which is based at the University of Virginia, wrote Thursday that he now believes that Edwards is “a small favorite.”
His report noted that black voters appear to be more energetic in supporting Edwards than during the primary when he won 46.6% of the vote and that several well-known Republicans — including Rob Maness, a retired Air Force colonel and former U.S. Senate candidate — are supporting the governor.