Louisiana’s election for governor, which will determine whether the increasingly red state will keep its Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards or opt for President Donald Trump’s favored candidate Eddie Rispone, will come to an end Saturday after voters go to the polls for the runoff.

The race has drawn the attention of national Republicans including Trump, who has rallied Republican voters three times. Edwards, a relatively popular governor, is testing the limits of partisanship and the benefits of incumbency at a time when Trump has loomed large over Republican politics, most recently in gubernatorial elections in Kentucky and Mississippi.

Saturday’s elections here will also determine whether Republicans can gain a supermajority in the state House, after claiming a two-thirds majority in the state Senate in the primary last month. Republicans easily swept all other statewide offices but one in the primary. Secretary of State is the only other statewide post up for grabs Saturday, with incumbent Republican Kyle Ardoin facing off against Democratic challenger Gwen Collins-Greenup in a rematch from their 2018 special election.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. While voters are encouraged to bring an ID to vote, they can vote with an affidavit without one.

The Secretary of State’s office projects a 51% turnout in the runoff, which would be the highest level of participation in at least two decades.

At the top of the ticket, national Republicans are waging a full-court press to push Rispone over the finish line. The Republican National Committee has pumped $2 million and 60 paid staffers into the state. The Republican Governors Association has spent about $3 million in the runoff here blasting Edwards with attack ads. Trump rallied in Bossier City Thursday night, and Vice President Mike Pence called into a conservative radio stations Friday morning to urge voters to turn out for Rispone.

“Eddie Rispone is a man who will bring the same caliber of leadership to your statehouse that the president brought to the White House,” Pence said on Jeff Crouere’s Ringside Politics show, adding, “The president and I have left it all on the field.”

The GOP efforts come after an early voting period that appeared to favor Edwards. African American voters made up 31% of the early voting electorate, a good sign for the Democrat after turnout among his base lagged in the primary. Democrats generally look to win about 30% of the white vote and have African American voters make up about 30% of the electorate to win statewide races here.

The governor on Friday appeared at a New Orleans women luncheon at the Hyatt Regency and was set to attend a teachers rally at the Zulu Club and visit barbershops in New Orleans before attending a get-out-the-vote rally in at Fulton Alley in New Orleans. Mayor LaToya Cantrell organized the event, which was set to feature Dumpstaphunk, Trombone Shorty, Mannie Fresh and other artists. On Saturday, Edwards is scheduled to wave signs at St. Charles and Louisiana avenues in New Orleans, as well as in Baton Rouge, before heading to an election night party at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge.

“I think the mayor and everyone else has done a pretty impressive job with get-out-the-vote efforts,” said state Sen. JP Morrell, a term-limited New Orleans Democrat. “As the races have narrowed down, the interest in the governor’s race has gone up, as well as the attention paid to it.”

Morrell said he thinks New Orleans voters are energized to vote against Rispone because he’s “hostile” to the city. Edwards has sought to make the race a choice between moving forward and going back to the days of former Gov. Bobby Jindal and billion-dollar budget deficits, something Morrell said should motivate voters.

Edwards ran on a platform that includes his expansion of Medicaid to cover about half a million adults and a budget and tax deal that shored up the state’s finances, allowing pay raises for public school teachers and investments in colleges and K-12 education.

Rispone campaigned as a conservative outsider who would usher in a sea change to state government by rewriting the constitution, freezing Medicaid expansion and retooling Louisiana’s largest incentive program to be friendlier to businesses, after Edwards overhauled the program. He has blasted Edwards as a tax-and-spend liberal who has hurt the economy. Rispone has offered few specifics on what he wants to accomplish in rewriting the constitution, and he has largely avoided the media and public events.

A co-founder of ISC Constructors, an industrial contracting firm based in Baton Rouge, the 70-year-old Rispone entered the race 13 months ago after he said he could not find a suitable candidate to go up against Edwards, a well-funded incumbent. U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Attorney General Jeff Landry, thought to be front-runners if they chose to get in the race, both opted not to late last year, leaving Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham as the only major Republicans.

By loaning more than $12 million of his personal fortune to his campaign, Rispone dramatically outspent Abraham and made himself well-known throughout the state, largely through paid media.

After spending much of the runoff in closed-door fundraisers and at the two Trump rallies, Rispone toured the state Friday at public events scheduled in Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lake Charles, Lafayette and New Orleans before ending at his company’s tailgate tent near LSU’s campus in the evening. 

Rispone met with 25 supporters at the private aircraft area at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in his 6th of seven stops during a fly around throughout the state. “It’s all about turnout,” he said, adding that no one knows how the race will turn out.

Polls have consistently shown the race is neck and neck, and most political analysts view it as a tossup. The average of public polls since Nov. 1 puts Edwards at 48.7% and Rispone at 46.9% – well within the margin of error – according to the elections site FiveThirtyEight.

The Secretary of State's office has been brushing up on the state law concerning recounts, if the election comes to that.

State law only allows recounts for absentee by mail and early voting ballots but not statewide. Each parish’s Board of Election Supervisors would conduct the recount with the candidate making the request paying the expenses. Recounts must be requested by Wednesday and the recount would take place on Thursday, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Louisiana uses direct-recording electronic voting machines without Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails on election day. 

Candidates can request, in writing, a "reinspection" of voting machine results in a parish.

The Secretary of State’s Office contacted Twitter to monitor disinformation that should it go viral, could undermine the election’s results in the eyes of many. And the Louisiana State Police is putting its Fusion Center into service by keeping an eye for chatter about planned disruptions at polling locales and disinformation about the election process as well as looking for tell-tale signs of hacking, said Lt. Nick Manale, a spokesman for the unit. Analysts also are looking for the tell-tale signs of computer hacking.

Super PACs funded by the oil and gas industry, trial lawyers, labor unions and others have spent millions on attack ads and mailers in the race, including heavy spending from the RGA and the Democratic Governors Association, both based in Washington, D.C.

The Black Organization for Leadership Development, after saying it had rotated off the air ads comparing Rispone to white supremacist David Duke, was running new radio ads using Duke's comments to a radio station that he hopes "Mr. Rispone and president Trump fulfills his promises." The state Democratic party was also paying for similar radio ads in New Orleans. Rispone earlier in the race slammed such ads as "disgusting." 

Edwards has sought to fill in the unknowns in Rispone’s platform, calling his Medicaid plan a “de facto repeal” of the expansion program and accusing him of wanting to slash university budgets, especially at historically black colleges and universities. In the final weeks of the race, the governor seized upon comments Rispone made in a radio interview that Edwards “hurt the reputation” of West Point by becoming a trial lawyer. Edwards’ campaign used the incident to repeatedly contrast Edwards’ military background with Rispone’s lack of service.

Rispone introduced himself to voters largely through his admiration of the president. He injected anti-immigration rhetoric into the race, blasting New Orleans as a “sanctuary city,” to the chagrin of city leaders. He spent millions on ads that professed his support of Trump, boasting that he had a Trump bumper sticker on his truck.

Similarly, Republicans have sought to tar Edwards as more aligned with the national Democratic party than Louisiana, which voted for Trump by a nearly 20-point margin in 2016. The governor has largely avoided serious criticism of the president, instead highlighting his nine visits to the White House during his tenure. Edwards also came out against the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

Edwards used his military background – he’s a West Point graduate and former Army Airborne Ranger – along with his anti-abortion, anti-gun stances to handily win the governorship in 2015. However, his opponent in that race, former U.S. Sen. David Vitter, was limping after his Republican opponents torched him. The other two Republican candidates, Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle, didn’t endorse Vitter. Dardenne went a step further, backing Edwards and landing a high-ranking post in the governor’s administration.

The 2019 election featured a far less vicious campaign, without embarrassing personal scandals dominating the race. Despite a withering attack Rispone launched against Abraham in the primary, Abraham swiftly endorsed his fellow Republican in his concession speech. The 317,149 Abraham voters in the primary became the center of attention for both sides after the runoff began.

Mark Ballard and Tyler Bridges of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.

Voting essentials

  • Polls open at 7 a.m.
  • Polls close at 8 p.m. All voters in line at 8 p.m. have the right to vote.
  • Be prepared to show a photo identification card.
  • Without a photo ID, voters can vote by affidavit after correctly answering identifying information before voting.
  • No campaign clothing or pins are allowed in polling places.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com