On Saturday night, a lot of attention was given to the Louisiana gubernatorial general election that featured incumbent Democratic governor John Bel Edwards and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone.
President Donald Trump made three visits to the state in an effort to boost Republican turnout, and even with the state’s Republican party winning a supermajority in the Senate and the House coming very close to a supermajority, and every other statewide race going heavily Republican, Rispone was unable to pull off a victory that should have been easy given the climate in the state, losing to Edwards by 40,000 votes in a 51-49 race with over 1.5 million votes cast.
Despite beating Congressman Ralph Abraham in the primary, Rispone sealed his defeat weeks before by dropping attack ads against Abraham, violating an agreement his campaign made with the state’s Republican party that he and Abraham would not do that. Now, that was back in the middle of September. The primary was in October and the general was on Saturday. At last polling, Rispone had a lead over Edwards of 46.5 to 46. When the early votes came in, Rispone was in the upper 50s in returns.
Voters along the I-20 corridor in Louisiana, which is Abraham’s congressional district, didn’t show up for Rispone. It’s home to Abraham. It’s his family, his friends, and his people… And Rispone turned them all off. Looking at the numbers, the major urban areas along that interstate underperformed for Rispone, though they did vote for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who won his run-off with a sizable percentage. Where did that percentage go? Either they left the ballot blank or they voted for Edwards.
Let’s go back to the middle of September. Rispone drops ads on Abraham that were based entirely on talking points developed by Edwards’ team and a corrupt, shady PAC known as “GumboPAC,” which creates near-slanderous ads against Republicans in Louisiana. Those talking points included hitting Abraham on a promise to donate his congressional salary and “voting alongside Nancy Pelosi over 300 times” – as most Republicans in Congress have by virtue of resolutions and other things that are not controversial.
But those attacks were ordered by a campaign staff that had never run a race in Louisiana – or, if they had, they weren’t notable nor were they statewide. You could maybe get away with those kinds of attacks in a closed primary system with several months between primaries and the general election. In Louisiana, you have a jungle primary, where everyone runs against everyone, and a run-off one month later. That’s not enough time for people to forget the insults. And the people who remembered the insults the most? They were Abraham supporters.
Abraham, though he endorsed Rispone the night of the primary, was mostly silent during the race. That wasn’t all on him, however, as the Rispone campaign acted as though they didn’t need Abraham, and if half the stories you hear through the grapevine are true, openly mocked him and his family during and after primary night.
Then came two rallies that the President of the United States, who is very popular in Louisiana, held. At neither of those rallies did anyone see Rispone and Abraham standing anywhere near each other, much less on stage, hands together, showing the unity that was necessary to get Abraham’s people to turn out – both of Trump’s rallies were along that same I-20 corridor, deep in Abraham territory.
And, given the nature of the attacks against him, I don’t particularly blame Abraham for not being more outspoken for Rispone. I also don’t blame the Louisiana congressional delegation for staying mostly silent. Rispone portrayed himself as an outsider, as someone different from all of them, and he directly attacked their colleague and friend. For those in the House, he attacked Abraham over many of the same votes they themselves had cast in Congress. The “outsider” persona Rispone’s idiotic campaign built was quickly becoming a “lone wolf” persona. It was clear that the campaign didn’t want or thought they didn’t need Louisiana’s other Republicans to help out.
All of that also puts a black eye on Trump, who was pushing hard for Rispone to win. Given the numbers we see, it’s clear that Trump helped Rispone to the finish line, but Rispone’s campaign had no plan to get him over it. Trump’s own influence, which in this state is fairly sizable, could not overcome regional and intra-party factionalism, which is precisely what Trump needed to show that he commanded his party fully from the top down. That gives members of the media plenty to write about (though their takeaways from that will be largely off-base).
Rispone’s campaign, to top it all off, did nothing to actually convince voters to support him. From his very first ad to his closing statements last week, his only message was to say he was just like Trump and he was going to fight career politicians. He talked about guns and abortion and immigration while running against a Democratic governor who had taken no action against guns and signed an incredibly restrictive anti-abortion bill while leading a state whose biggest problem is outmigration, not illegal immigration.
And, given the controversial nature of Trump’s personal history, the more moderate Republicans of certain parishes (particularly the moderate Republican women) were bound to stay home from the get-go because claiming to be just like Trump isn’t something people are going to be selective about. If you claim to be like him, then people are going to see you as being like him in all ways, and for a guy like Rispone (who himself is a good guy and with a great family, and is someone who is fiercely conservative and a longtime donor to conservative causes) to be seen as like Trump in ALL ways is not a good look for his wholesome family persona.
And that is why I initially endorsed Abraham in the race. Rispone hired people in his campaign who were not from Louisiana, did not know a thing about the issues Louisiana voters cared about and looked only for a big payday from a guy who went through $14 million of his own money to lose a gubernatorial race against an incredibly beatable Democrat in the deep south. This column would not be that much different had Rispone won, because his ceiling by Saturday afternoon was just 51 percent, and that’s in a state where Republicans were sweeping and retaining other offices. If these were the type of people he’d hire to run the campaign, I am downright terrified of who he would have hired into his administration.
But, we will never see a Rispone administration. His inability to hire the right people to run his campaign, and the subsequent insanely poor campaign strategies and messaging, led to a loss that should not have happened. Louisiana, going into a census and redistricting, will now have to deal with a term-limited Democratic governor who will feel no need to negotiate despite the entire rest of the state’s government being Republican.