LAKE CHARLES — On the eve of Louisiana’s primary election that will decide whether Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards will be forced into a November runoff, President Donald Trump riled up Republican voters Friday evening and urged them to send a message to the Democratic party by voting for one of Edwards’ two GOP opponents in the governor’s race.
Hours earlier, Edwards made his own last-minute pitch to voters here, responding to Trump’s visit at a press conference where he urged voters not to take cues from “the partisanship in D.C.,” and touted the state’s budget surplus and the region’s “booming economy."
The two events set the stage for a Saturday primary election that could prove crucial for Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. Republicans have undergone a furious effort in the final days of the race to keep Edwards from winning more than 50% of the vote Saturday, which would win him reelection.
If Edwards falls short, he will face a Nov. 16 runoff against either Congressman Ralph Abraham or businessman Eddie Rispone, both of whom have repeatedly invoked the president’s name on the campaign trail and in television ads. Polling has shown Edwards is near that 50% mark, but a victory in the primary is far from certain.
“Louisiana cannot take four more years of a liberal Democrat governor raising your taxes, killing your jobs ... and taking money from open borders extremists,” Trump said.
In a bid to get Republican voters to the polls, Trump cast the election as a way to send a message to his opponents in D.C., reflecting a GOP effort to nationalize the election and tie Edwards to a Democratic party that has been decimated in Louisiana.
Trump, like most major Republican officials, did not endorse a Republican candidate for governor, however. Instead, he offered up both Abraham and Rispone as “great people” and good alternatives to Edwards – a strategy the Democratic governor said “won’t work.”
He briefly brought Abraham and Rispone on stage and allowed them to deliver remarks. In an awkward moment for the candidates, he also told the two they can’t go negative on each other, despite a blistering attack ad launched by Rispone against Abraham last month, as well as a negative ad Abraham released in response.
Trump spent much of the rally criticizing Democrats in Congress, calling the impeachment investigation “a hoax” and ridiculing Democratic presidential hopefuls. He riffed on a wide range of topics, ripping the “fake news” media and Joe Biden, or “Sleepy Joe,” drawing boos and insults from the crowd.
At his press conference earlier in the day, Edwards was surrounded by blown up headlines of positive news stories about Louisiana, and he talked up his record on the economy, especially Lake Charles’ booming industrial sector that has driven significant job growth, mostly in construction jobs at massive petrochemical and liquified natural gas, LNG, export plants. He said he doesn’t believe Trump knows much about Louisiana, noting the state has a $500 million budget surplus and a GOP-led Legislature that agreed to tax hikes to help solve recurring budget deficits.
"I don’t think Louisiana should be taking its inspiration from the partisanship of D.C.," Edwards said in a half-hour-long press conference at SOWELA Community Technical College in Lake Charles. "I think Washington, instead, should take inspiration from the bipartisanship of Louisiana."
He also rebutted Trump’s tweets that accused him of being “suspect” on the 2nd Amendment, something Trump echoed at his rally. Edwards, a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat, said he is unaware of any policy differences between he and Trump on guns.
However, Edwards tread lightly around Trump’s visit, touting a good working relationship with the president that includes nine visits with Trump during his tenure. Asked about the impeachment probe targeted at Trump, Edwards said he opposes the effort, arguing it will “change absolutely nothing” and stifle any progress in Congress. He has avoided harsh criticism of Trump throughout the campaign.
The president said a “friend” told him that Edwards is “not so good” to him behind his back, despite Edwards’ public-facing willingness to appear friendly with him.
Trump won Louisiana by 20 points in 2016, and Republicans here have long speculated a visit by the president could lift a GOP candidate above the governor. The rally took place just 12 hours before polls were set to open in Louisiana’s open primary, where all candidates will appear on the same ballot.
Abraham and Rispone, polling neck and neck, have repeatedly warred over who is most loyal to the president. Rispone even criticized Abraham for calling on Trump to consider stepping down in 2016 when a recording emerged of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the genitals. Abraham has fought back, touting his voting record with Trump’s priorities in Congress.
Rally-goers lined up outside the James E. Sudduth Coliseum in Lake Charles several hours before the event Friday, as people hawked shirts reading “Donald F******* Trump 2020” and “God, Guns and Trump.” The 7,500-seat auditorium, in a parish that voted for Trump by a roughly 65% to 31% margin in 2016, was mostly full.
In the 2015 runoff election for governor, Edwards won 58% of the vote in Calcasieu Parish, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 31% in the 2016 presidential election, a 27-point swing.
A Trump visit to Louisiana was long expected during a runoff, when the Republican party would coalesce around whichever candidate would face Edwards. Likewise, attack ads focused on a sexual harassment scandal of a former top aide to Edwards was anticipated as a late October or November surprise.
Instead, anti-Edwards organizations have blitzed the TV airwaves with attacks based on the scandal in recent days, after polling showed the governor close to the 50% mark he needs to win reelection. Republicans believe Edwards’ reelection prospects will dim significantly if he is forced into a runoff, where incumbent governors have a poor track record.
Edwards said Friday he doesn’t intend to be in a runoff, but if he finds himself in one, he will beat whichever Republican challenger he faces.
“You’ll recall I was in a runoff last time,” Edwards said, referring to his race against former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, in 2016. “I won with 56% of the vote. I have no reason to believe things are going to be different this time.”
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this story