When Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone signed up Tuesday as Republican challengers, they learned within a day just how much the advantage of incumbency gives to John Bel Edwards.
As Rispone and Abraham prattled on vaguely about cutting taxes, the Democratic governor was making a splash Wednesday by agreeing to fund the local portion of a major federal flood-control grant, engineered in large part by a Republican congressman.
It’s a hefty windfall for the city-parish government in Baton Rouge, led by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. She is an Edwards supporter and this is for her essentially free money, because she and the Metro Council — weakly, as so many local governments operate in Louisiana — were unable to come up with the local match for the projects, about $40 million to gain $255 million.
That the federal grant was spearheaded by Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves is icing on the cake for the governor, who has constantly sought to portray himself as working across party lines for the good of the state.
Perhaps it is commonly assumed that incumbency is a danger to its holder. Businessman Rispone’s consultants, who helped win a tough primary for governor in Tennessee with an “outsider” message, are probably quite representative of the state of political consulting nationally, at least on the GOP side.
But this is not a party primary, as they have in Tennessee, but an all-comers general election on Oct. 12. Right now, the GOP challengers must worry most about forcing a runoff against Edwards to Nov. 16. Even more so, they must worry about finishing ahead of the other Republican to get into that runoff.
Messaging slavish devotion to President Donald Trump, as Rispone did in his first round of ads, does not distinguish the two men; Abraham, a North Louisiana congressman, has been all-in with the president, even when it hurts his own constituents, whether soybean farmers (tariffs) or food-stamp households (budget cuts).
Perhaps Rispone’s big war chest of his own money — he built a fortune in industrial construction — may allow him to eclipse Abraham in the race to October. The congressman started late, in part because of the Hamlet-light performance of U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy, R-Madisonville, who froze the GOP field with a long rumination last year over entering the race.
But neither challenger will get very far with the messages we have seen to date.
In the meantime, Edwards can travel the state and make announcements about new jobs (Port Allen, lately), coastal restoration (Cameron, on Tuesday) and a pay raise for teachers, everywhere.
The bailout of local government in Baton Rouge is hardly the first time that the governor has assumed a positive profile that redounds to his credit in major voting centers. Because of the central role of state-owned facilities like the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Edwards played a key role in brokering a deal that got Mayor LaToya Cantrell a lot of credit as well as funding for her key priorities.
The shelf-life of political gratitude is notoriously short. Still, it’s easy to bet that both the African-American women heading the state’s largest cities are going to be all-in for Edwards’ reelection when the time comes. They owe him.
That is not exactly vote-buying with tax money, but the political impact of these moves is substantial. There’s a big difference between support and enthusiastic support, and the Cantrell and Broome deals are only the latest ways in which an incumbent can lay claim to the latter come Election Day.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.