FILE - Ralph Abraham, John Bel Edwards, Eddie Rispone

U.S. Rep Ralph Abraham, R-La. (from left), Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and businessman Eddie Rispone.

Eddie Rispone’s campaign war chest gave him a huge advantage in the primary over Congressman Ralph Abraham, leaders of both Republican campaigns for Louisiana governor agreed Wednesday.

But in the runoff, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ popularity allowed him to withstand Rispone’s attacks and eke out a victory in what is otherwise a red state, according to speakers at a forum hosted by LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

“I didn’t think Abraham was going to be as strong as he was,” said Bryan Reed, Rispone’s campaign manager. “There really was not a path to victory unless we went negative.”

Rispone is the co-founder of a large industrial firm, and his campaign was able to rely on his personal wealth. Meanwhile, Abraham’s campaign couldn’t even afford to advertise in the key Baton Rouge television market and had limited ability to respond to attacks from Rispone’s team.

“If we would have had the money to be able to be on broadcast television in the Baton Rouge metro region, we would have been in the runoff,” said Lionel Rainey, general consultant for the Abraham campaign.

Reed said his campaign’s polling showed Edwards with an approval rating as high as 60 percent. Nationalizing the race and associating Rispone with President Donald Trump, who won Louisiana by 20 points in 2016, made more sense than making the race a referendum on the incumbent.

“If this was a job performance race we were going to lose,” Reed said. “Our pathway to victory was making this an ideological choice.”

Trump made three visits to Louisiana during the campaign, including two after Rispone secured a spot in the runoff by finishing second in the nonpartisan open primary. But at the rallies, the president spent more time talking about himself and his personal enemies than about Rispone, and some of his attacks on Edwards seem to have fallen flat.  

Calling Edwards a “radical liberal” who opposes the Second Amendment didn’t sway voters who already have decided Edwards isn’t an extreme liberal and know he supports gun rights. Trump motivates both Republican and Democrat voters, Reed said, so you “take the good with the bad.”

Richard Carbo, who led Edwards’ campaign, said his team knew getting into a tit-for-tat with the leader of the free world wasn’t a good idea. Instead, they stayed on message, focusing on their campaign’s themes – which included education, health care and the state’s fiscal stability – while stressing Edwards' ability to work with presidents of both parties.

They also knew their opponents would attack the 2017 criminal justice overhaul, so they addressed the public safety questions early on with ads highlighting Edwards Army Ranger service and his family’s law enforcement background. Edwards later won the endorsement of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.

“I think we were very disciplined,” Carbo said. “We knew what our message was going to be going into the campaign.”

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.