After months of campaigning as a political outsider and self-financing his bid to become Louisiana’s governor to the tune of $11 million, Eddie Rispone is now welcoming the endorsement and support of the Louisiana Republican Party.
Throughout the primary contest, GOP leaders had been wary of returning to the partisan in-fighting that cleared the way for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ long-shot victory 2015.
They took a wait-and-see approach, confident that one of their candidates would earn a spot in a runoff against Edwards.
Edwards was hoping to end the race early and win a second term with a strong showing in the primary-- while there were still two Republican candidates splitting the vote.
Edwards fell short and now the Louisiana Republican party is uniting behind Rispone.
Over the weekend in Kenner, they hosted a “call to action” rally. Jefferson Parish is traditionally a Republican stronghold, but Edwards had a surprisingly strong showing there, prompting party officials to increase their efforts in the voter-rich area.
Louis Gurvich, Chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party, emceed the event, which was headlined by U.S. Senator John Kennedy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise.
The stage was crowded, underscoring that Edwards -- aside from being the only Democratic governor in the Deep South-- is the only Democrat in Louisiana who has been elected to statewide office.
Until recently, the GOP was in a balancing act-- choosing not to endorse either Rispone or Congressman Ralph Abraham in the race, but needing to keep turnout high among the conservatice base to prevent Edwards from winning in the primary.
They pulled it off.
“200,000 more votes were cast in the primary of 2019 than were cast in either of the elections in 2015," Gurvich said. "I think we know where most of those votes went.”
Rispone and Abraham earned a combined 51% of the vote in the primary. Edwards earned 47%.
Rep. Scalise said that got the attention of at least one person in Washington...
“President Trump is all in on helping elect Eddie Rispone to be our next governor," Scalise said to an applauding crowd. "He noticed that on Saturday night, more than a majority of this state voted for a Republican governor."
"But you know what? It's not done. Our work is not done. We've got a few weeks left."
Republicans benefitted in the primary from a last-minute visit by Trump, and the President is almost as big a presence in the race as the candidates themselves.
Rispone’s campaign has released four TV ads since the primary, but he doesn’t appear in any of them. Instead, President Trump attacks Edwards.
“Louisiana cannot take four more years of a liberal Democrat governor raising your taxes, taking your jobs and attacking your industries," Trump says in the 30-second spot.
The other ads recycle the soundbyte, adding lines about lost jobs, illegal immigration and the high cost of car insurance in the state.
Robert Hogan, chairman of Louisiana State University’s political science department says tapping into Trump’s base of support could be a winning strategy for Rispone in the runoff.
“It’s important to remember that Trump won this state with 58 percent of the vote in 2016," Hogan said. "And his approval rating is still quite high among Louisiana voters, despite some of the controversies and missteps he’s had in recent weeks."
Edwards has changed his tone too. His campaign launched ads attacking Rispone for his business record and appealing to Abraham voters put off by the intraparty attacks in the primary.
Abraham endorsed Rispone on the night of the primary, but was noticably absent from Saturday's rally.
Pollster John Couvillon says that approach makes sense for Edwards given the primary results. More than 168,000 more white voters turned out on October 12 than did in the last governor’s race, diluting the strength of black voters-- Democrats’ most reliable demographic.
Edwards will likely increase his voter outreach efforts with that community, but he can’t make a big enough improvement with black voters alone to win the race.
"You need to boost the anemic black turnout," Couvillon said of the Edwards campaign. "You cannot necessarily take it from 26.5% to 30%, but you could theoretically take it from 26.5% to 28%, which is half the distance between the 47% he earned and 50% he needs."
“Governor Edwards is trying to chip away at the Abraham vote figuring that that’s worth a point or two and the combination of those two I think would get him to 50.”
Voters will have the final say when they head to the polls. Election day is November 16 and early voting begins Saturday November 2.