3 Governor Candidates

John Bel Edwards (left), Eddie Rispone (middle) and Ralph Abraham (right)

After months of minor skirmishes, Louisiana’s governor’s race suddenly broke into a pitched battle among all three candidates Tuesday after businessman Eddie Rispone launched one attack ad that labeled Gov. John Bel Edwards as soft on crime and a second that called U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham a liar.

Anticipating the ad, Edwards wasted no time in countering with a commercial in which a parade of sheriffs and district attorneys attested to his law enforcement bona fides.

Abraham, meanwhile, denounced the attack by Rispone, saying, “It’s sad that my Republican opponent felt like his only option was to create an ad full of baseless personal attacks that he knows aren’t true.”

Moon Griffon, the state’s best-known conservative radio talk show host, ended his neutrality between the two Republicans by endorsing the congressman from northeast Richland Parish.

Griffon and other leading conservatives fear that Rispone’s attacks against Abraham will cause a replay of the 2015 governor’s race, when the Republican front-runner, then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, faced a barrage of criticism from his two Republican rivals, then-Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and then-Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, and attacked them in turn.

Edwards, a long-shot candidate throughout the primary, waltzed into the runoff untouched and then soundly defeated the battered Vitter to become the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.

The various punches and counter-punches on Tuesday occurred less than four weeks before the Oct. 12 primary and only two days before the three major candidates meet Thursday night for the first time in a face-to-face debate that will air on TV statewide. It’s also less than two weeks before voters can begin to cast ballots. Early voting begins on Sept. 28 and ends on Oct. 5.

Political insiders said Rispone and his advisers apparently believed they had no other option than to attack Abraham because, after a slew of TV ads touting his credentials, he has stalled in third place in polls, with Edwards leading by a big margin over Abraham, and Rispone bringing up the rear.

The two Republicans are fighting to keep Edwards below 50% in the primary, which would ensure a runoff with the second-place finisher. Edwards wins outright if he receives more than 50%.

“Rispone is doing what he’s got to do,” said Roy Fletcher, a veteran Republican media consultant. “He knocked the piss out of Abraham.”

That Rispone dipped into his small fortune to attack Edwards was no surprise. His ad showed mug shots of apparent criminals against a backdrop of flashing police lights while a female announcer intoned, “John Bel Edwards put them back on the streets.”

The commercial was referring to legislation approved by Edwards and the Republican-controlled Legislature that changed sentencing and probation laws to make it easier for non-violent offenders to win an early release. The changes have ended Louisiana’s long reign as the state that incarcerates more people on a per capita basis. A coalition of conservative and liberal groups backed the 10 bills that made up the criminal justice package.

Three different groups that supported the legislation – Smart on Crime Louisiana, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and Right on Crime – all condemned Rispone’s ad on Tuesday and said the changes are saving money and will make Louisiana safer.

“The 2017 criminal justice reforms, passed by bipartisan majorities, were based on proven policies from other conservative, Southern states,” said Daniel Erspamer, Pelican’s chief executive officer.

The Edwards campaign noted that one claim in the ad – that murders had increased by 20% during his tenure – was actually a 2017 statistic, while the criminal justice changes enacted by the Legislature didn’t take effect until later that year.

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Rispone’s ad also labeled New Orleans “a sanctuary city for lawlessness,” a view not held by the Trump administration.

Edwards reacted to Rispone’s ad with one of his own in which two sheriffs, one former sheriff and three district attorneys said in turn, “The attacks against Gov. Edwards are not only false, they’re hypocritical. He’s never supported releasing dangerous criminals, and we all know it. Criminal justice reform is making Louisiana safer.”

In an interview, Edwards confirmed that his campaign anticipated the attack from Rispone.

“I think he realizes despite the amount of money he's spent, he's in a distant third and he had to do something to try to change the dynamics of the race,” Edwards said.

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Rispone, in his other barbed ad, mimicked the Edwards campaign in its attacks against Abraham.

Rispone said the congressman “lied” when he pledged to voters during his first election campaign, in 2014, that he would donate his salary to charity if he won. The Advocate reported in January that, without telling the public, Abraham began collecting his congressional salary after his first two-year term.

Rispone also criticized Abraham for missing “more votes than any congressman in America” – another favorite talking point for Edwards’ campaign.

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Rispone’s blast angered Griffon, who told listeners, “It makes no sense to attack a Republican like this. It’s ridiculous ... Eddie, I thought you were better than this.”

Griffon also told listeners that Rispone had promised on his show not to attack Abraham.

Anthony Ramirez, Rispone’s spokesman, said he did not recall that promise and added of his boss, “He has always said he wants to point out the differences. Louisiana wants a fighter like Donald Trump. We’ve proved that time and time again.”

State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, also endorsed Abraham on Tuesday, writing on Facebook that Rispone’s attack was a “VERY ILL-ADVISED turn in the campaign for Louisiana governor.”

Several state GOP insiders reported that Abraham campaign advisers burned up the phone lines Monday and Tuesday in an attempt to convince party officials to end their dual endorsement of both Rispone and Abraham in favor of just Abraham. But the party took no official announcement on Tuesday.

Party Chairman Louis Gurvich said he had no comment but may later in the week.

Capital News Bureau reporter Sam Karlin contributed to this article.

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Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.