Beating John Bel
Scott McKay
by
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (YouTube screenshot)

It isn’t yet known which of the two major Republican challengers to John Bel Edwards is likely to face the Democrat incumbent in the November runoff, which will decide the Louisiana gubernatorial race. Congressman Ralph Abraham and industrial contractor Eddie Rispone each have their camps of support, neither of which is willing to concede anything less than six weeks before the October 12 jungle primary. In Louisiana, there are no party primaries; all candidates are thrown into one jumble, and if none earns a majority in the primary the top two performers will contest a runoff.

Edwards’ hope and expectation was that he would be the only Democrat in the race, and with Republican votes split between a pair of lesser-known candidates in Abraham, whose congressional district is the most rural in Louisiana and who was consequently the least well known of the state’s delegation on Capitol Hill, and Rispone, who’s never run for office before, he would have an opportunity to get to 50 percent plus one in October.

But as the Labor Day holiday hits and election season has undoubtedly begun in the Bayou State, it just doesn’t appear that Edwards is going to achieve that goal. A pair of polls in August place Edwards far short of the mark he’ll need to avoid the runoff he dreads, and the environment for the November finale is expected to be far less advantageous than the primary.

The first poll of note was actually reported — fraudulently — as a big win for Edwards. The Baton Rouge Advocate didn’t report the actual numbers from the survey conducted by veteran pollster Verne Kennedy done on behalf of that paper’s publisher John Georges, but instead reported “adjusted” numbers, which padded Edwards’ support in a head-scratching fashion. What Kennedy actually found was that Edwards had 38 percent, Abraham 25 percent, and Rispone 19, with 18 percent for other candidates. (Gary Landrieu, a cousin of former senator Mary Landrieu and former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, is running as an independent, and Omar Dantzler, an African-American bail bondsman and community activist, is running as a Democrat, among other minor candidates.)

But Kennedy only had Edwards receiving 54 percent of the black vote, so he “normalized” that number by assigning Edwards a 90-percent share of that vote and thus pushed Edwards slightly over 50 percent in the primary. That’s the result that made headlines in the state’s only remaining major newspaper. As Kennedy pegged the African-American share of the electorate at 30 percent, a number that is higher than the recent historical average in statewide elections, and given the fact there is a black Democrat in the race in Dantzler, who is actually raising enough money to have made a small statewide cable TV ad buy, there is little reason to believe Edwards will perform as Kennedy projects.

Most observers around the state scoffed at Kennedy’s “adjusted” poll results, but the raw numbers were instructive. This is particularly true since they largely mirrored results from a private poll conducted in the state’s 3rd Congressional District, which is regarded as perhaps the most neutral of the six in Louisiana. The 3rd encompasses the southwest part of the state, and particularly the Lafayette and Lake Charles areas, from which none of the candidates come. In that poll Edwards had 37 percent, Abraham 30, Rispone 19, Landrieu 4 percent, and the undecideds 10.

No poll has included Dantzler as an option, so it’s difficult to know what impact he might have on the black vote. It’s inconceivable, though, that he won’t eat into Edwards’ support in that community to some extent.

It is also difficult to know whether Abraham or Rispone will make the runoff and thus emerge as a potential favorite to ultimately win the race. Abraham has been the Republican front-runner in each poll of the race, and while we won’t know for another 10 days or so what his actual fundraising numbers look like, there is buzz around the campaign trail indicating the congressman has been reeling in big-fish donors like Bill Dance at a bass tournament. That’s been Abraham’s chief obstacle in this race, as between Edwards’ use of his incumbent status to reel in special-interest and national Democrat money and Rispone’s ability to self-finance his campaign Abraham has started largely from scratch compared to a pair of opponents with $10 million apiece in their war chests.

Rispone’s sizable stash has fueled an ad blitz of furious intensity since he took to the airwaves in late July, and the exposure he’s achieved by tying himself closely to President Trump has translated into a fast rise in the polls. A Hayride-MultiQuest poll of the race done at the end of July had Rispone at just 6.5 percent; if he’s knocking on the door of 20 percent as the two most recent surveys indicate, it’s not unreasonable to foresee him catching and passing Abraham before October 12.

But the voters Rispone needs to pass Abraham will likely need to hear something different from the ads he’s had on television so far. That’s why his latest campaign spot doesn’t mention Trump but instead focuses on something that is destined to be the biggest issue in the race and something Edwards would rather not talk about — namely, the fact that Louisiana was the only state in America to actually lose jobs from July 2018 to July 2019, meaning that Edwards has the worst economic record of any governor in the country.

The Republican Governors’ Association has spent seven figures on TV reminding the state’s voters of exactly that, and furthermore noting that Edwards’ economic performance follows $7 billion in tax increases he demanded and wrangled from the legislature upon taking office. Abraham has all but worn Edwards out on that message by use of social media and press releases, but the single most impactful move he’s made in the race was a statement he made in one of his own TV ads, a collection of quick takes that included the seemingly uncontroversial assertion that there are only two genders. That earned the congressman exactly the attention he was looking for — thorough condemnation from the Left and the national mainstream media, and support and puzzlement from everyone else at so obvious a contention.

So as of right now, the state of the Louisiana governor’s race revolves around three questions. First, will Abraham’s polling advantage hold up against Rispone’s TV blitz? That’s something that could happen as a result of Abraham’s fundraising haul of late turning into a hail of campaign spots of his own. Second, will Abraham and Rispone be able to decide the GOP half of the runoff without resorting to trashing each other? Most of the state’s Republican voters are terrified of that happening, as memories of the unseemly internecine warfare between David Vitter, Scott Angelle, and Jay Dardenne in 2015 — which allowed Edwards to sail to election in a fundamentally red state — still resonate disgust on the right.

And third, can Edwards survive the bombs likely to be thrown his way by Abraham and Rispone, who to date have been more focused on building their own name recognition, and the various third-party entities invested in a change in the governor’s mansion? The Louisiana GOP last week put out a list of items that are fair game for attacks, and it’s more than enough to bury him.

Edwards’ camp is also dreading the entry into the race of Trump, who it’s universally assumed will make himself known on behalf of either Abraham or Rispone at some point. The president is highly popular in the state even though Louisiana has almost completely failed to participate in the Trump economic recovery thanks to Edwards’ policies, and when he does make an endorsement it likely dooms Edwards by stripping from him the “soft Republican” vote he’s somehow managed to remain competitive with thanks to his pro-life and pro–Second Amendment stances.

None of it adds up to a lot of reason for optimism in Edwards’ camp, but the governor is maintaining a brave face and a show of confidence so far. We shall see how long that lasts as the campaign progresses and the pressure builds.

Scott McKay
Scott McKay
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Scott McKay is publisher of the Hayride, which offers news and commentary on Louisiana and national politics.
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