When Republican President Donald Trump stopped in Louisiana last week, I don’t think anybody imagined he’d leave behind a big gift for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
But that he did, via word leaked after Air Force One left Louisiana airspace that Trump had beseeched U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise to challenge Edwards for reelection this fall.
General conventional wisdom is that the affable Jefferson Parish congressman, who fought his way back from a near-fatal 2017 gunshot wound, would be by far the best-positioned opponent to deny Edwards a second term — even more so than U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, who flirted with a run before deciding to stay put. Yet as he has every time someone has asked him to consider leaving Washington for the Governor’s Mansion, Scalise politely but firmly declined, according to published reports.
From Trump’s perspective, that may be the beginning and end of the story. Surely fellow Republicans encouraged him to help draft a major challenger to the only sitting Democratic governor in the Deep South, a clear target for defeat by the national party. And Trump would probably have liked to claim credit for convincing Scalise to get in, because that’s how he rolls.
But the president also doesn’t appear to have a big problem with Edwards, who has gone out of his way to be friendly and has been rewarded with multiple invitations to the White House. Besides, the balance of power in state houses isn’t nearly as important to the president’s politics or legislative prospects as is control of Congress.
Back in Louisiana, though, there’s definite fallout from the conversation, not so much for Edwards but for the two Republicans who are challenging him.
Both U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham of Alto and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone are hoping the R next to their names is enough to attract support from a significant portion of the conservative-leaning voters who backed Edwards last time against then-U. S. Sen. David Vitter, R-New Orleans. The president’s unspoken message is that either he, or the people whispering in his ear, worry that it’s not.
That has to be music to Edwards’ ears.
The episode also undermines the benefit that Abraham thought he might get by appearing alongside the president last week. Here’s how his aides described the hoped-for effect of the “DJT Bump” in an internal memo obtained by LaPolitics.com (Abraham is a physician, which is why his campaign refers to him as “Doc”):
“It cannot be understated how much the President’s visit to Louisiana this week — and Doc’s appearance with him — will strengthen our position with the undecided voters,” the memo said. “Based on the previous presidential election and virtually every poll since, the President making a choice in this race may very well be the final straw that pushes Doc to victory. We should continue our outward support and make every possible effort to seek that his vocal support and endorsement.”
The Scalise report, from the news site Axios, said that Trump made his pitch to the Louisiana congressman as they traveled to Louisiana, so it’s possible that Abraham made a good impression on the ground. Still, there’s really no way to read the news as anything but a vote of no-confidence in the existing field from on high.
Which is not to say that Trump won’t be back, and possibly stump for either Abraham or Rispone (or both) once the campaign heats up this fall. Presidents do that all the time, and Trump certainly likes heading out to friendly territory and riling up a crowd.
Even if that happens, the story is a reminder that neither of the announced Republican candidates should take anything about the president’s promised support for granted.
You just never know what Trump is going to say.