BOSSIER CITY, La. (AP) — President Donald Trump is testing the strength of his political influence in the face of Washington’s impeachment drama, as he returned to Louisiana Thursday to try to oust the state’s Democratic governor. Trump is holding his first rally since the beginnings of public hearings in the inquiry.
Although Louisiana is a deep-red state Trump won by 20 percentage points, the gubernatorial contest has reached its final days ahead of Saturday’s election as a tossup. Democrat John Bel Edwards is vying for a second term against little-known Republican political donor Eddie Rispone.
Trump is attending a Thursday night rally for Rispone in north Louisiana’s Bossier City. That’s near prime territory to reach out to backers of Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the primary’s third-place finisher. Both Edwards and Rispone are targeting Abraham’s voters, knowing those 317,000 people can help decide the race’s outcome. Abraham endorsed Rispone and will appear at the rally with Trump.
Louisiana has the last of three Southern governor’s races this year, all targets of intense interest from the GOP and Trump. While Republicans kept the seat in Mississippi, they lost Kentucky’s governorship — with Republican Matt Bevin conceding the race Thursday.
Smarting from the Kentucky outcome, Trump has turned his focus to Louisiana and defeating Edwards, the Deep South’s only Democratic governor. Thursday’s event will be the president’s third in the state’s gubernatorial competition, with an anti-Edwards event in the primary, and now two pro-Rispone rallies in the runoff.
Rispone, owner of an industrial contracting firm, has spent millions on the race, hitched his candidacy to Trump and hammered a pro-Trump theme ever since.
“What Trump has done for our country has been phenomenal. ... The economy is booming in the United States, but it's not booming in Louisiana. We're falling behind,” Rispone said at an event in Baton Rouge. “We want to do for Louisiana what Trump has done for the nation.”
Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee and the campaign, said the RNC has invested $2 million in the race and has over 60 staffers on the ground working in partnership with the Louisiana state party.
“The reason we have an election on Saturday is because the president went down there and held Gov. Edwards under 50%,” Gorka told reporters ahead of the rally. “So we're in it to win. And Louisiana deserves a governor who's going to be a partner with President Trump.”
Edwards suggests Rispone turns repeatedly to Trump and the national outlook because he can’t stand on the strength of state-specific issues. Rispone has dodged details of how he’d balance the budget with his proposed tax cuts and what he wants to accomplish in a constitutional convention.
Rispone is “trying to nationalize this race because that’s the only shot he has,” Edwards said Thursday at a campaign rally in Shreveport. “He cannot win this race based on Louisiana issues because he hasn’t demonstrated any knowledge about how state government works. He doesn’t have any vision for the state of Louisiana.”
The Democratic incumbent sticks to Louisiana-specific topics, in a sort of “pretend-there’s-no-national-politics” angle to a race that partisans of both stripes want to use as a talking point in 2020.
But Edwards isn’t a traditional Democrat in the national mold. He’s a former Army Ranger who opposes abortion, supports gun rights and talks of his solid working relationship with Trump.
Edwards campaigns on his work with the Republican-led Legislature to stabilize state finances, saying Rispone would return Louisiana to the deficit-riddled ways of unpopular Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal. And Edwards says Rispone’s plan to “freeze” enrollment in Medicaid expansion would eventually force thousands off health insurance rolls.
Rispone calls Edwards a “tax-and-spend liberal trial lawyer” who is fear-mongering and who doesn’t like the president.
Vance Gauthier, a 70-year-old contractor and Republican, cast his ballot for Rispone during the early voting period in Jefferson Parish, saying he was “looking for a change” and considered his vote in the state election a show of support for Trump.
“We need a Republican back in the position,” Gauthier said.
But race watchers say Trump’s influence can only stretch so far.
“I don’t think Trump’s bringing more to the table than has already been brought into the campaign,” said Michael Henderson, director of Louisiana State University's Public Policy Research Center.
Edwards supporters say Trump’s visits are actually boosting their own chances, helping to turn out black voters and other Democrats who skipped the primary.
Melissa Toler, a 65-year-old retiree who voted early in New Orleans, chose Edwards “because he’s the best candidate, the most qualified, and the most reasonable.” She said Trump’s visits to Louisiana stirred up interest.
“I’m a registered independent and he whips me up, not in a good way,” Toler said.
In New Orleans and other cities with high concentrations of African American voters, a wave of ads says Rispone’s tight ties with Trump are a reason to vote for Edwards. And while Edwards sidesteps direct criticism of the president, the Louisiana Democratic Party posted ads on Facebook declaring: “If Rispone wins, Trump wins” and asking voters to “keep hate out of Louisiana” by supporting Edwards.
The anti-Trump messaging by outside groups and Edwards’ own grassroots outreach effort to black voters appear to be having an effect. African American turnout during the early voting period jumped significantly above primary levels, a critical piece of Edwards’ strategy to win a second term.
Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Jill Colvin contributed to this report from Washington.
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