I was shocked to see the results unfold election night in the governor’s race. After incumbent John Bel Edwards got less than 47% of the vote in the primary, I didn’t see a path to victory for the Democrat — especially considering that Edwards’ Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, collectively got 51% of the vote. There were obviously several factors I didn’t consider.
In the days leading up to the election, I spent a good bit of time listening to urban radio stations in New Orleans that cater to a mostly African American audience. Most of the radio ads stations like WYLD and others ran consistently pushed the idea of getting out to the polls and voting. Several of the ads tied Rispone to President Donald Trump and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. One ad played a clip of Duke praising Trump, followed by a voice-over saying Trump, Duke, and Rispone are against us. Another ad featured the voice of New Orleans City Council member Jay Banks, a Democrat.
“What is the difference between David Duke, Eddie Rispone and Donald Trump? They do not care about you or anyone who looks like you,” said Banks.
The Wednesday before election day, this paper ran a story reporting the group running the ads, the Black Organization for Leadership Development, had promised to pull them. But I heard several of the Duke-themed ads run after the promise to pull the ads was made. They obviously worked. Edwards ended up with 95% of the state’s black vote — a 4% increase over what the governor received during the primary. Edwards got 28,000 more votes in Orleans Parish in the general than he did during the primary. Edwards won Orleans Parish with 114,812 votes, compared to Rispone getting only 13,041.
The ads comparing Rispone to Duke were not fair. Rispone had spent a small fortune of his own money through the years promoting school choice. These are policies that typically benefit inner-city schools the most. It’s the last thing a racist like Duke would ever be involved with. But the Duke-themed ads also went unanswered and unchallenged on the radio stations on which they ran. The Rispone camp should have, at the very least, attempted to respond.
The get-out-the-vote effort in Orleans Parish was strong, including a rally hosted by Democratic Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The Louisiana NAACP also offered free Uber rides to anyone wanting to vote.
I also underestimated the impact Rispone’s misleading and false attacks on Abraham during the primary would have on the congressman’s supporters. Rispone accused Abraham of opposing a border wall and being an ally of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. The charges were ridiculous and blatantly untrue. Some Abraham supporters never got over the attacks. Abraham’s own son-in-law was so upset by them he donated money to the Edwards campaign. John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based pollster and demographer, estimated 10% of Abraham’s primary voters rejected Rispone and instead went with Edwards.
I also overestimated the impact labeling Edwards a liberal over and over in television ads would have in a deeply red state like Louisiana. Many understood the governor is not liberal in the sense of an Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, so the label didn’t stick with enough voters. The governor’s pro-life and pro-Second Amendment credentials in many ways neutralized the “Liberal John Bel Edwards” attack ads.
And the Trump factor ended up being a two-edged sword for Rispone. The president is unpopular with many African Americans, and his heavy presence in the race could have motivated many of them to get out and vote for Edwards. Trump didn’t help matters by making the race more about himself than Rispone.
If you had to point to the biggest reason Rispone lost to Edwards, it would have to come down to the feckless campaign the Republican businessman ran. Rispone was, for the most part, a no-show. His campaign was short on specifics, and he seemed unwilling to engage in debates. This race was Rispone’s to lose. But in the end, he turned out to be grossly incompetent when it comes to running a campaign or at least hiring the right people to do so. In an election where Republicans dominated in just about every way, Rispone lost a race he should have easily won.