Louisiana governor's race panel at LSU

Campaign advisers for the three major candidates for Louisiana governor discuss the election during a panel at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. 

Days after narrowly losing the governor’s race to incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards, Republican Eddie Rispone’s campaign leaders said they had doubled down on its strategies to nationalize the race by painting Edwards as a liberal and going negative against fellow GOP candidate Ralph Abraham in the primary.

Bryan Reed, campaign manager for Rispone, said during a panel held by the LSU Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs in partnership with Louisiana Public Broadcasting Wednesday morning that the campaign had to make the election about something other than Edwards’ job performance, citing his high approval rating, which is why it turned to ideology.

“We were asking people in Louisiana to fire someone who they liked, who they thought was doing a good job. That’s very difficult,” Reed said. “It needed to be about a Trump supporter versus a Trump opponent.”

Reed also said Rispone had “no path to victory” in the primary without launching an attack against Abraham, a north Louisiana congressman who had a huge funding disadvantage and who came in third in the primary.

But Abraham consultant Lionel Rainey, reflecting the bitterness still felt by many allies of Abraham over the attack ad, called the spot “blatantly false” and suggested the decision backfired in the runoff.

“I think he played a short game to get into the runoff and it cost you the race,” Rainey said.

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Edwards’ campaign said they had to remain disciplined throughout the race as Trump attacked Edwards on Twitter and at rallies — including by making false claims about Edwards’ position on guns. Jared Arsement, Edwards’ media consultant, said he thought Trump’s decision to try to paint Edwards as a “radical liberal” was a mistake.

“A radical liberal who wants to take your guns is never going to work against John Bel Edwards,” Edwards campaign manager Richard Carbo added.

Edwards, who had a sizable war chest and strong approval numbers, “intimidated” many Republicans who were considering whether to get into the race, said Luke Letlow, Abraham’s chief of staff. Rispone and Abraham were among the lesser-known candidates who considered running, after several bigger names passed on the race. 

Reed said the Rispone campaign was “not going to convince people their opinion of (Edwards) was wrong.” He said Edwards had 60% approval in their polling when Rispone entered the Race, and 56% approval in an exit poll the campaign conducted. 

Trump visited Louisiana three times to stump for Republicans and blast Edwards, at rallies in Lake Charles, Monroe and Bossier City. Rispone’s campaign made Trump the centerpiece of its campaign, repeatedly running ads embracing the president. Edwards largely avoided criticizing the president, playing up his working relationship with the White House.

Carbo said polling in the race was very consistent, suggesting Trump was not successful in painting Edwards as a liberal Democrat in line with the national party. Edwards is a staunch anti-abortion Democrat who also opposes most gun control. 

Edwards’ campaign anticipated being blasted with attack ads for a bipartisan criminal justice reform package the governor supported, and to get out ahead of it, Arsement said the campaign released a spot that touted his family’s law enforcement background. A Super PAC started by Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, as well as Rispone’s campaign, attacked Edwards for the criminal justice reforms.

Reed, of Rispone’s campaign, said the attack ad it launched against Abraham late in the primary, which vaulted Rispone to a runoff against Edwards, dented the congressman’s “suit of armor.” He said the broadside likening Abraham to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, was the most effective attack in the spot.

Edwards’ campaign won in large part due to a significant spike in turnout among Democratic voters in Louisiana’s major metro areas compared to the Oct. 12 primary, and Reed suggested Democratic voters were also energized by Trump’s visits to the state.

“These races have become enormously partisan,” Reed said. “The amount of people in the middle is shrinking, and it’s becoming more and more of a turnout battle.”

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com