GOP Candidates Compete to Unseat Democrat John Bel Edwards in Louisiana’s Gubernatorial Race

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
Edwards is facing a challenge from two Republicans in Saturday’s open primary, which could have big implications for the national GOP.

This weekend, Louisianans will cast their votes in an open “jungle primary” for their state’s gubernatorial race, featuring several candidates, some more viable than others. The strongest contenders are Louisiana’s current governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, and two Republicans: Representative Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone.

The Republican Governors Association considers the race a top pick-up opportunity for the GOP. “With the state’s solid red hue combined with President Trump’s 20-point victory in 2016, Governor Edwards will certainly face a competitive race no matter who Republicans decide to nominate,” Jon Thompson, an RGA spokesman, said of the contest last November.

If Edwards, who is polling well ahead of Abraham and Rispone, manages to secure 50 percent of the vote in Saturday’s contest, he’ll maintain his seat as governor, and Thompson will be proven wrong. If he doesn’t, he’ll face whichever of the two Republicans finishes second in a runoff election on November 16. Of the five most recent gubernatorial elections held in Louisiana, three were won outright in the primary. Two (in 2003 and 2015) headed to a runoff, and this one looks likely to follow. Edwards hasn’t achieved more than 50 percent support in a poll of the race since mid August, and the latest surveys show him hovering in the mid 40s, reaching a peak of 48 percent in the most recent poll, from Emerson. Most surveys suggest that, of the two Republicans, Rispone has a slight edge over Abraham, polling in the low to mid 20s while Abraham reaches only the high teens. In polls of potential runoff match-ups, however, Abraham appears to fare better against Edwards than Rispone.

Edwards was elected to his first term in 2015, defeating former U.S. senator David Vitter to succeed Republican governor Bobby Jindal. He’s currently the only Democratic governor in a southern state and the only Democratic politician holding statewide office in Louisiana. Even so, he seems fairly well-liked among Louisianans, with a positive net-approval rating that has held steady throughout his time as governor. Unlike many Democratic governors in red states, he has managed to avoid become deeply unpopular with Republican voters, and he’s consistently maintained strong support among independents.

His popularity makes sense given his policy priorities. Under his leadership, Louisiana has gone from having a budget deficit to a budget surplus. He has focused on popular causes such as Medicaid expansion and increasing funding for K–12 education. Significantly, and unlike the overwhelming majority of Democratic politicians, he has also shown himself to be socially conservative. A Catholic, he has governed as a supporter of pro-life policies, even going so far as to sign a law that would prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks’ gestation.

Abraham has represented Louisiana’s fifth congressional district, which covers most of the northeastern and central portions of the state, since he was first elected in 2014. The Advocate, Lousiana’s largest daily paper, wrote during his most recent bid for reelection last year that he “has turned in a consistently conservative voting record in Congress” and deemed the fifth district “reliably Republican.” That seems to be the case: Abraham won that race by 36 points.

Rispone, meanwhile, is an independently wealthy contractor who has invested more than $11 million of his personal money into his campaign, and has tried to position himself as an outsider alternative to Abraham, suggesting that the congressman has been insufficiently supportive of President Trump.

As for Trump, he hasn’t said a word about which Republican voters in the state ought to support tomorrow, though he and others in his orbit have certainly encouraged them to vote. He is scheduled to visit the state this evening, for a final rally before tomorrow’s contest, after Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. visited and urged Republicans to back either Abraham or Rispone in separate rallies over the last week. Speaking to a crowd in Kenner, La. last Saturday, Pence attempted to frame the race as a referendum on the president, telling the crowd that voting against Edwards would show Washington that Louisiana voters support Trump in light of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

A key issue on which all three candidates disagree is whether the state should hold a constitutional convention to amend the state constitution in 2020. Louisiana is one of only six states not to require a popular vote to call such a convention, instead leaving that responsibility to the legislature. There were some limited efforts last spring in the legislature to call a convention, but they eventually died down, only to pick back up again this year.

Of the three gubernatorial candidates, Rispone is the most supportive of the idea; in fact, he’s made it a central component of his proposed policy agenda, insisting that rewriting the constitution is the best way to give the government more money to fund coastal restoration and K–12 education, among other goals.

Abraham hasn’t explicitly opposed holding a convention but has said that doing so would risk the possibility of changes that could come back to haunt Republicans. “If you open up the entire constitution, you put things on the chopping block like education that we believe are important,” he said in a late-September debate.

“A constitutional convention is not, in my view, necessary,” Edwards said in a speech to Louisiana sheriffs in August. “I don’t have a burning desire to do it [and] would not support the effort if it couldn’t be a limited constitutional convention. There’s a difference of opinion among the legal scholars as to whether that’s possible.”

Given that calling a convention requires two-thirds’ support in both chambers of the legislature, the effort seems unlikely to succeed at the moment. But as an issue in an off-year race where Edwards’ avoiding a runoff could be determined by just a few percentage points, it could have a big impact. And that, in turn, makes it crucial to Republicans hungry for any good news they can get as the national party heads into a presidential election year amid the turmoil of House Democrats’ effort to impeach Trump. The president may not have picked a dog in this fight, but he and his supporters will surely be watching tomorrow night’s results with interest.

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