Election 2020 Trump

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Monroe in 2019.

Never before has a president of the United States campaigned so hard for a Louisiana gubernatorial candidate.

Until President Donald Trump’s arrival, the day before primary voting last month, the race had been somewhat moribund as incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards and his two Republican challengers carefully avoided saying anything that would alienate a segment necessary in their formula for victory.

Since then, Louisiana has seen a debate that resembled a food fight, one candidate dissing the other’s West Point credentials, supporters of each candidate playing the race card and increasingly nasty television commercials.

Edwards, seeking a second term as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, is in the winner-take-all runoff Saturday with Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, a Republican who has spent well over $12 million of his own money. The number of early voters last week suggests that more than half of the state’s registered voters, for the first time in years, will participate in the election.

Edwards argues he has worked with a Republican-majority Legislature to end Louisiana’s reign as an incarceration leader and to make difficult decisions to end a cycle of deficits. With stable finances, Edwards argues, the state has been able to make targeted investments, such as more money for public schools and colleges.

Making his first bid for public office, Rispone is running a Chance the Gardener campaign. Like the Peter Sellers character in the 1979 movie “Being There,” Rispone presents himself as a wealthy older man in a tailored suit with a fund of simplistic generalizations. Republican voters have attached their own details.

Northeast Louisiana voters wouldn’t have illegally parked on exit ramps just to see Rispone. But they did Wednesday and packed the Monroe Civic Center for a chance to see Trump.

Louisiana has always liked a show, which apparently only Trump seems to understand.

In the tradition of Huey and Earl Long, Trump knows how to hang a moniker on opposing candidates and how to exaggerate facts. Trump told supporters that Edwards was aligned with socialism and had killed jobs in Louisiana. The crowd cheered.

A few minutes before, however, the White House had tweeted about the fact that 21,000 new jobs had been created in the state during the past three years, unemployment had dropped to 4.3%, blue-collar workers made more money, and that the “Louisiana energy industry is booming.”

Trump “preaches for decision” like evangelical and conservative Protestant ministers, in this case for Republicans to go vote. Edwards, on the other hand, sticks closer to the text, as pastors of traditional denominations do, and asks listeners to think, in this case about policy.

When his turn came to speak at the Monroe rally, Rispone praised Trump and talked a lot about GOP anger over the impeachment inquiry. He blamed Democrats. “We can send a message to them by voting me in,” Rispone said.

Recent polls show little cross-over between supporters of Edwards and Rispone, so they’re both speaking primarily to their base. A few moderate Republicans are up for grabs, though — mostly U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham supporters ticked off about the Rispone campaign’s bare-knuckled attacks against him.

Abraham endorsed Rispone in his concession speech after coming in third on primary election night. But he has been noticeably absent in the runoff campaign.

Abraham spent his two and half minutes at the microphone in Monroe praising Trump and only at the end mentioned Rispone: “Go vote Saturday for Eddie.”

All this adulation makes good visuals for Trump, whose numbers are falling all around the country.

In January 2017, Trump had more voters who approved of him than disapproved in every state but California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to an analysis last week by Morning Consult, a left-leaning polling service that was looking at a compilation of polls over time. In October, more voters in 31 states disapproved of his presidency than approved.

G. Pearson Cross, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist, sees the pendulum starting to swing away from hard conservatism. Former GOP bastions Georgia and Florida, for instance, came within a hair of electing Democratic governors. Texas almost sent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz home.

Last week, Kentucky rejected incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a businessman serving in his first elected post and for whom Trump had campaigned. Virginia ousted enough Republicans in its General Assembly to become majority Democratic for the first time in years.

But Louisiana hasn’t reached that level yet, Cross said.

“We’ve not seen the full extent of conservative ideology in this state, yet,” Cross said. “We’re late on the curve, if you think about Louisiana politics in terms of what the rest of the South is doing. But then we always have been.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.