It’s hard to think of a serious candidate for governor who has as little official experience as Eddie Rispone, the Baton Rouge tycoon whose millions invested in ads pushed him into second place in the primary election.
A businessman, thus an outsider, is the Rispone pitch, backed up by the popular president he has tied himself to. And that brings to mind David Vitter.
The premise of the campaigns of Rispone and third-place finisher Ralph Abraham was that Gov. John Bel Edwards’ 2015 runoff win over Vitter was a fluke: Vitter was hammered because of an earlier sex scandal; Louisiana is now a Republican state; without baggage a conservative — even a hard-core conservative, to the right of many other Republicans — will defeat Edwards’ bid for a second term.
For Rispone, who is still despite his ad blitz little-known, it’s good not to be Vitter, one of the Republicans — now in bad odor — whom the businessman has supported for years. There is no hint of any personal scandal involving Rispone, who is, like Edwards, a devout Catholic.
Not being David Vitter thus is a big deal. Some already speak of Rispone as the front-runner, although pre-primary polls tended to show Edwards winning a potential head-to-head matchup.
What’s the downside of not being David Vitter?
For one thing, David Vitter — whatever one may think of his views — was indubitably qualified to be governor. He had served in the Legislature, the U.S. Congress and then the Senate. He was, like his intraparty rival Bobby Jindal, a Rhodes Scholar, with Vitter going to Harvard instead of Jindal’s Brown in the Ivy League.
Rispone, like Trump, has never held even the humblest public office, although he was deeply involved in Jindal’s Workforce Commission efforts. His knowledge of state government is not zero, but it’s not much compared to Vitter’s.
Another downside of not being David Vitter: Rispone’s profile is heavily dependent on wrapping himself in Donald Trump. "You've got to vote John Bel Edwards out," Trump says in new Rispone ads.
Not being David Vitter, Rispone is something of a blank slate otherwise, and Edwards is immediately taking the political tack that if people don’t know a lot about Rispone, he’ll define him right quick.
Redefining Vitter was never an issue. But Edwards has that shot with Rispone.
"Now we have a choice to make,” Edwards’ first ad said. “Let Eddie Rispone drag us back to the deficits and cuts to health care and education of Bobby Jindal or continue moving forward and investing in our future. That is what this election is about," Edwards says.
In politics, defining what the election is about is more than half the game. But Rispone’s record is not that of David Vitter: He does not have years of votes on tough issues in legislative bodies.
Every big business, especially in construction like Rispone’s, will have liens or lawsuits against it, and doubtless Democratic researchers are busy on those records. But the likelihood is that he’s got a lot more sterling reputation than Trump had in business.
Rispone has little in the way of public record other than his campaign contributions, including many to Jindal.
That Rispone was a strong supporter of charter schools and, more controversially, vouchers for religious school tuition — as Jindal was — is a defensible stand, but it’s a real record, one that Edwards is certainly going to use, if he sees it as a way to define Rispone.
Finally, is Rispone qualified to be governor? If he’s built a big business and made a lot of money, perhaps that is enough for voters.
And in an anti-politics age, government service is a political negative?
We’ll see how, or if, Edwards can define his opponent in the coming weeks.
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.