elections of 2019

Louisiana Governor’s Race Runoff Pits Edwards Against Trumpian Tycoon

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Democratic governor of deep-red Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, finished first in his state’s nonpartisan gubernatorial “jungle primary” yesterday, and will face Republican construction tycoon Eddie Rispone in a November 16 runoff. The two bits of mystery resolved by the results were whether Edwards could win without a runoff (at 47 percent, he fell just short of the majority needed for a walk-off), and which Republican would face him if he didn’t. For much of the campaign, GOP congressman Ralph Abraham was expected to top his party’s candidates, but the free-spending Risponse, running on a Trumpian version of the ancient “outsider businessman” message, overtook him, despite the congressman’s last-minute grab for attention in sponsoring a resolution to expel Nancy Pelosi from the House.

Edwards is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South (Virginia’s Ralph Northam and North Carolina’s Roy Cooper join him as the Democrats governing ex-Confederate states). He won four years ago in part because of his predecessor Bobby Jindal’s disastrous fiscal policies, and his culturally conservative positions on hot-button issues like abortion and guns have made him reasonably popular for a Democrat in a state Trump won by 19 points, and that has gone for every Republican presidential nominee in this century. His reversal of Jindal’s opposition to a Medicaid expansion that benefitted the state both fiscally and socially has been quite popular.

So Democrats hoped Edwards might win a majority and end it all, as some (though not all) polls indicated he might. Both Mike Pence and Donald Trump did rallies in the state with both the Republican candidates, begging their voters to look beyond the sniping between Abraham and Rispone and deny the godless Democrat a win. So when the results came in, guess who took credit?

It wouldn’t be a Trump tweet without a major misstatement of facts, and aside from his characterization of the two runoff opponents, he just pulled out of the air the assertion that Edwards was on track to receiving 66 percent of the vote until he himself got involved. Yes, in the past Republicans have usually benefitted from runoff elections, which typically have lower-than-average turnout, but this one could be different thanks to Edwards’s popularity and the steady buildup of political interest generated by next year’s presidential race. Turnout on Saturday was up significantly from 2015.

Trump’s major impact on the contest may have been in providing a model for Rispone, as The Advocate observed:

Rispone, who made his devotion to President Donald Trump a key part of his campaign, said he got a congratulatory telephone call from the president late Saturday night…

Active in backroom conservative politics for years — he’s given close to a million dollars in campaign contributions to GOP candidates and causes — Rispone said he threw himself into the race after finding through prayer that he needed to give something back. Through a raft of television commercials, Rispone, 70, introduced himself as an outsider with business skills who would change things, comparing himself to Trump.

So this sort of right-wing bayou equivalent of Tom Steyer pulled it off, winning 27 percent of the vote to Abraham’s 24 percent. Rispone’s big issue is a demand for a constitutional convention that will allegedly uproot corruption and inefficiency. He is not (at least publicly) calling for repeal of the Medicaid expansion.

Fairly or not, the runoff will be treated by the winners (and by at least some national media) as a harbinger for 2020. So you can expect a lot of attention and money to be showered on Louisiana by both parties during the next five weeks.

Louisiana Runoff Pits Governor Edwards Against GOP Tycoon