Louisiana’s latest competition for governor should offer basic reminders to political strategists who want to work in the state: Voters still like parade-going, hand-shaking retail politics. Running for governor isn’t the same as any other statewide race. And, perhaps most importantly, candidates matter.
Republican businessman Eddie Rispone and his out-of-state campaign consultants seemed to miss those key points, and that helped Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards reach a second term.
While the governor’s race outcome shocked political outsiders and President Donald Trump, it could serve as a sort of crash course in the nuances of Louisiana politics. Among the takeaways from Edwards’ reelection victory:
Voters like to see gubernatorial candidates. People in Louisiana take their governor’s races more personally than they take a U.S. House or Senate race. Voters want to see candidates and know their backgrounds.
In political terms only, the two candidates to be Louisiana’s next governor are playing for the highest accolades possible.
Rispone largely avoided that traditional retail politicking and focused almost entirely on TV ads and social media campaigning. He held closed-door events with Republican insiders while skipping forums with Louisiana’s sheriffs, local elected officials and business organizations. He agreed to only one debate in the runoff.
Outside of rallies with Trump, Rispone didn’t do regular campaign events to mingle with voters, and he avoided most media interviews that could have given him opportunity to define himself and rebut Edwards’ criticisms.
In contrast, Edwards crisscrossed the state, missing few opportunities to show up at regional college football games, parades and festivals. If there wasn’t an event going on, Edwards created one, gathering local elected officials and community leaders to talk about issues central to his campaign.
Identity politics isn't always enough. A little-known candidate, Rispone had an interesting, hard-scrabble story he could have told voters about growing up in Baton Rouge, working his way through college and building his own business. But he never really told it.
The operating assumption of both Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone in this year’s election was that John Bel Edwards won in 2015 because of — sh…
Instead, Rispone hitched himself to Trump, without introducing himself to voters. He talked of national issues, such as immigration, that weren’t relevant to Louisiana or the job he was seeking. He offered few specifics about what he’d do as governor, broadly talking about a constitutional convention, tax cuts and his business acumen.
Trump’s support “only can get you so far. Ultimately, candidates do matter,” said Southern University political science professor Albert Samuels. “Eddie Rispone, once you got beyond the slogans, he really didn’t have very much to say.”
Edwards used Rispone’s lack of detail to fill in the blanks himself and accuse Rispone of wanting to do all manner of unpopular things.
And while voters learned little about Rispone’s background, Edwards reminded them of his personal story as a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who came from generations of Tangipahoa Parish sheriffs.
Money can't buy an election, but it matters. Edwards had the power of incumbency and had been raising money for four years, giving him a hefty campaign war chest. Rispone, meanwhile, seemed to have unlimited dollars to spend on the race, putting $15 million of his personal wealth into the campaign and spending much of it.
Still, Rispone’s money wasn’t enough to unseat a Democratic incumbent with strong approval ratings, even in the ruby red Deep South. But Rispone’s money was enough to catapult him over Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham in the primary. Rispone used the dollars to attack Abraham, and Abraham didn’t have the money to fight back.
“If you don’t have the ability to respond when people go that hard against you, you’re not going to be able to be successful,” Lionel Rainey, Abraham’s political consultant, said at an LSU event debriefing the gubernatorial campaign strategists.
Louisiana remains a red state. While voters chose a Democrat to remain governor, that doesn’t change Louisiana’s conservative bent.
Voters reelected an anti-abortion, pro-gun moderate who people largely think has performed well in office. But Edwards is a unicorn of sorts, with a biography that isn’t easy to find in another candidate.
Every other statewide elected job in Louisiana is held by a Republican, most of them easily reelected this fall. The Louisiana Legislature will become more deeply red in the new term, after voters added more conservatives.
And Trump is expected to coast to victory in Louisiana in 2020.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.
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