The State Police troopers who shadowed him are gone.
The crowds that believed he would create a better Louisiana have disappeared.
President Donald Trump is no longer checking in with surprise calls to his cell phone..
For 35 days during the runoff election, businessman Eddie Rispone rode the hopes of conservatives throughout Louisiana — and in the White House — that he would knock off Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democrat who held statewide office in the state.
Rispone fell just short, winning 734,286 votes – about 40,000 less than Edwards. The governor will be inaugurated for a second term on Jan. 13.
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Rispone has returned to his previous life, and he’s at peace with that, the devout Catholic said during a 4½-hour interview at ISC, the Baton Rouge electrical contracting firm he co-founded.
After an exhausting 14-month political campaign, Rispone is back to spending time with his wife, Linda, and their seven children and 24 grandchildren, taking time to go deer hunting and visiting the office. He’s also eating ravenously after losing 15 pounds during the campaign, bottoming out at 145.
In his most extensive comments since the election, Rispone expressed disappointment, naturally, at the final result. But there was also a bit of wonderment as he reflected on a wild ride that took him from unknown businessman to Republican darling thanks to a strategy that tied him to Trump, fueled by $13.5 million of his own fortune.
Rispone acknowledged no major regrets, although he admitted he’s still coming to grips with the damage he did to his bank account.
Reporters caught only glimpses of Rispone throughout the campaign, and he wasn’t willing to bare his soul in the postmortem interview either.
He was uninterested in second-guessing decisions during the campaign by him and his out-of-state political consultants, who have come under fire from Republican insiders and conservative pundits alike for his defeat. He didn’t share any new details of the policies he would have tried to enact if elected.
Dressed in blue jeans and cowboy boots, sitting at a conference table, Rispone was relaxed throughout the conversation, pausing only when he dug into a sandwich from Chick-fil-A.
Rispone, 70, did break some news. He said he has ruled out running for governor again in four years, saying this was his one and only shot.
“I was very disappointed at the opportunity we missed,” he said. “I’ve gotten over it. I’ve moved on. I’m trying to think about what I can do for our future for our state – workforce development and education.”
Rispone confirmed that he was an accidental candidate of sorts.
By 2017, he was convinced Edwards was leading Louisiana in the wrong direction. He felt the governor had stymied efforts championed by Rispone while Bobby Jindal was governor to make K-12 schools more accountable, coupled with the policy to give poor children an escape from their low-performing public schools through the voucher program that would allow them to attend private schools.
Rispone was also peeved that Edwards had backed trial attorneys in demanding that coastal parishes file suit against oil and gas companies – and that Edwards had scaled back a generous tax break program for heavy industry, including the sorts of petrochemical projects Rispone’s firm often works on.
“I said, ‘This guy is killing jobs and trying to reverse everything we had done in education.’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Who is going to turn this around? Run against a sitting governor with all the plaintiff attorneys?’”
In November 2017, Rispone was at grandparents’ day at St. George Catholic School in Baton Rouge. The scene made him reflective, and he thought about how blessed his six grandchildren were to be attending the school.
Then, he said, “God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘What about the 130,000 [children] in the D and F [rated public] schools?’”
Without a good answer, Rispone began to have sleepless nights.
Rispone asked Linda whether he ought to challenge Edwards.
“She didn’t like the idea,” Rispone remembered. “I backed up and kind of felt relieved. You can’t do it if your wife isn’t going to do it.”
Rispone tried to enlist U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the deputy minority leader in Washington, but he passed. So did Stephen Waguespack, a former chief of staff to Jindal who heads the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and for a time mulled a run.
Early one Sunday morning in October, four political advisers passed through the white front doors of the Governor’s Mansion.
Frustrated, Rispone found himself holding imaginary debates with Edwards while at home at night. His belief that the state would stagnate under Edwards – and that poor children wouldn’t get better schools – nagged at him at family functions. This led him to revisit a possible run for governor. He asked Linda to pray over the idea.
“Several weeks later, she said she was in,” he recalled. “We explained it to our children. They were in.”
Rispone filed to run in October 2018, a year before the primary.
By January, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham from northeast Louisiana was the only other Republican willing to run. Abraham’s candidacy didn’t overwhelm Rispone, however, because the businessman had watched Abraham audition months earlier during a meeting with major Republican donor Lane Grigsby at Grigsby’s Baton Rouge office.
Abraham, remembered Rispone, “didn’t know the state” and “fumbled around” answering Grigsby’s questions before Grigsby finally told the congressman that he wouldn’t support him.
Rispone put up an initial $5 million to fund his campaign, hired consultants to manage his race and underwent training to learn how to stay on message as he answered questions from reporters, party activists and potential donors.
Rispone had trouble making the transition from talking about his company to talking about himself, going from “we” to “I,” as he described it.
“That took several months,” he said, adding, “Once you feel like you can be self-promoting and humble, you become much more comfortable speaking to crowds and the press.”
Rispone poured in another $5 million, enough to launch his first ad on July 22 and remain on TV through election day.
The ad showcased his consultants’ strategy: The only path for a Rispone victory was to make the race an ideological choice between “a liberal trial attorney” and “a businessman who was not beholden to special interests,” as Rispone liked to describe it. This strategy required turning him into the Louisiana version of Trump.
“Hi, I’m Eddie Rispone,” he began in the first ad, sitting on the back of a pickup truck, clad in blue jeans and a work shirt. “I supported President Trump against Hillary.”
But Rispone began hearing from friends that in the ad he sounded more like a Louisiana caricature of Ross Perot, the Texas businessman who left a mark while losing two independent campaigns for president in the 1990s.
Rispone realized that the pitch of his voice had been higher than normal during the filming from the adrenaline of making his first ad.
His consultants, not knowing him, hadn’t caught that.
Jefferson Parish has more Republicans than any other parish in the state.
Rispone’s ad campaign pulled some voters off Abraham, but not enough. In September, Rispone’s consultants told him he had no alternative but to attack the congressman to leapfrog him.
Rispone justified the controversial decision by saying he had been the target of a whispering campaign by a super PAC that supported Abraham. The attack ad – which included misleading information that the congressman had voted more than 300 times with House Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi – caused a furor among establishment Republicans, fearful that it would divide the party and inadvertently boost Edwards.
Rispone passed the congressman and won a spot in the runoff against Edwards.
The five-week campaign is a blur now for the businessman.
A highlight came one day when he was in his Baton Rouge campaign office raising money for the state party, and his cell phone rang. Courtney Guastella, the party’s professional fundraiser, was sitting across from him.
“Eddie Rispone’s line,” she said after picking up his phone.
She paused and said to Rispone, “Sir, you’re going to want to take this one.”
It was Trump, wanting to see how the Republican candidate was doing.
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On election night, Rispone was in his suite on the 9th floor of L’Auberge Resort and Casino when his top two campaign aides, Austin Chambers and Bryan Reed, knocked on the door at about 9:30 p.m.
“We’re in the lead, but I don’t feel comfortable about our margins in a lot of these parishes,” Chambers told Rispone. He then noted that half the precincts in Orleans, East Baton Rouge and Caddo parishes – three of the state’s four biggest parishes, all of them voting strongly for Edwards – had yet to be counted.
“I don’t think we’re going to pull it off,” Chambers said.
Rispone felt disappointment – not for himself, but for the state.
After the election, he spent several days with his family at his camp in Mississippi, where they hunted and fished.
He is now trying to determine his role going forward.
He has come to one conclusion: He doesn’t want to put his family through another governor’s race.
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But he would like to return to the kind of political work that he did under Jindal – to push conservative-oriented policies to the education system and to promote better ways to train and hire blue-collar workers.
He doesn’t expect to work with the governor on these issues or even sit down with him, even though both men had said they would do so after their one runoff debate. By the end of the race, each man was calling the other a liar.
“Our policies are very different,” Rispone said. “Do you think he’d reduce the lawsuit abuse? I don’t think so. He may go back and look at his agencies and get some better people. Is he going to get the Louisiana Checkbook instituted right away? I don’t think so.”
In the meantime, he’s back to being Eddie Rispone, even if there are constant reminders of the short period when he was a conservative torch bearer.
“People come up and say they are disappointed and say, ‘God has a bigger plan for you. Don’t be discouraged,’” Rispone said. “I don’t look at it like that. God gave people free will. We had 700,000 [voters] who wanted change. But roughly 40,000 chose something different. God hasn’t changed my plan. I’m going to continue serving Him.”
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