If a runoff were the certain outcome of Saturday's primary election, would the president of the United States be in Lake Charles on Friday?
Not that Donald Trump doesn’t like Lake Charles. He was there, in presidential scheduling terms, almost yesterday: In May, he toured the Sabine River facility for exporting liquefied natural gas.
With a crowd-pleasing instinct, Trump promised a new Calcasieu River bridge on Interstate 10. He doesn’t really have much direct power to fund that, but hey, like so much of the president’s travel, that was a taxpayer-paid campaign stop.
Friday’s is a real campaign stop, in which the president will call upon Louisiana voters to cast their ballots for a Republican in the governor’s race.
That’s another bit of awkwardness, as Trump apparently doesn’t have a favorite among the two major Republican candidates. His real favorite was Steve Scalise, a U.S. House leader from Jefferson Parish, but he was among a number of leading Republicans who passed on the 2019 race.
A north Louisiana congressman, Ralph Abraham, and a self-funding Baton Rouge businessman, Eddie Rispone, have been calling each other names for weeks now, in the hopes that they will win a runoff spot.
But will there be a runoff? That is why Trump is really in Lake Charles.
Polling public and private suggests that Gov. John Bel Edwards is close to a win in the primary. Even if not winning in the primary, the recent Mason-Dixon firm’s numbers, for some Louisiana TV stations, suggests he would run ahead of either challenger in a runoff.
The poll also showed Edwards — as conservative as a Democrat can get on social issues — more popular than the president right now in Louisiana. Approval ratings are not the same thing as votes; in the abstract, voters might approve of Edwards’ performance in office, but might still be inclined to vote for another candidate in a contested primary election.
The biggest draw that a party has is its president. Clearly, without an endorsed Republican candidate in the primary, a presidential visit is not lightly undertaken. Just as clearly, it would not be happening without a very good reason in the polls.
Interestingly, both the president’s visit — and that of Donald Trump Jr. to Lafayette on Monday — were targeted on the southwestern part of the state. That may mean that GOP polling shows voters there that can be swung against Edwards.
As interestingly, the two GOP candidates — and the president — have argued that Edwards is at fault because Louisiana’s economy is not doing as well as that of other states. But it’s hard to make that case in Lake Charles, booming because of petrochemical industry expansions and the employment caused by building big LNG export facilities.
The GOP might say that Edwards is hurting the economy, but Edwards can easily rejoin with a campaign slogan of yesteryear: You folks in Lake Charles have never had it so good.
Does the president have enough sway with Louisiana voters to turn them off Edwards? Perhaps not, as voters tend to be pretty independent, even in an age of political partisanship. Voting for governor is also not the same as voting for U.S. Senate or House.
Because state government is so powerful in Louisiana, and local governments much less so than in other states, running for governor is more like running for mayor. Significant blocs in the electorate want to know what you can do for them. A president is by comparison an important but more distant figure.
That’s why the governor has been using the last week of the primary campaign scurrying around the state to cut ribbons and shovel ceremonial dirt at groundbreakings for projects begun under his watch. He’s running for mayor.
Then what’s the point of the POTUS visit? Donald Trump has shown again and again that he can appeal to base voters in the GOP. With apologies to Jeb Bush, the president is not low-energy.
If the president can fire up voters to turn out, it could have a material impact on the primary election, enough to ensure that there is a runoff to give the GOP a shot this year in Louisiana.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.