The last Democratic governor in a Deep South state is battling for his political life against a well-financed Republican challenger in the final major election contest of 2019 taking place Saturday in Louisiana.
Public polls show Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) running narrowly ahead of businessman Eddie Rispone (R), a first-time candidate who has sunk more than $12 million into his own race. Two polls out this week show Edwards leading Rispone by just 2 percentage points, well within the margin of error.
Edwards led the first round of voting in October with nearly 47 percent of the vote, followed by Rispone at 27 percent. But Edwards needed a majority, or about 60,000 more votes, to avoid Saturday’s runoff election.
“How liberal is John Bel Edwards? So liberal, he’s backed by the Washington impeachment squad. So liberal, he’s letting trial lawyers wreck car insurance rates. So liberal, he’s giving illegal immigrants millions. And so liberal, he’s playing the race card just to win an election,” a recent Rispone ad says.
The polls that show such a close race also show most Louisiana voters view Edwards favorably. His campaign has played up increased investment in education spending, a new budget deal and Medicaid expansion that has covered thousands of low-income Louisiana residents.
“Thanks to Gov. Edwards expanding Medicaid, I didn’t have to choose between getting cancer treatment or going bankrupt,” one woman says in an Edwards campaign commercial. “His opponent’s plan would take health care coverage away from hundreds of thousands of working people who need help, just like I did. You may not have to vote like your life depends on it, but know that someone’s does.”
In the closing days of the race, both Democrats and Republicans are scrambling to get voters to the polls.
Turnout in a week of early voting reached its highest volume ever in a nonpresidential election, according to Louisiana pollster John Couvillon, surpassing the previous record by more than 115,000 voters.
Crucially for Edwards’s chances, a substantial percentage of that early vote came from African Americans. Black voters made up about 31 percent of all those who cast their ballots early, about 6 percentage points higher than the share of black voters in the first round of balloting last month.
Virtually all of those voters are likely to back Edwards. A Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy survey conducted last week showed Edwards taking 92 percent of the African American vote, and Rispone winning just 2 percent.
“There are just very few black voters who are going to support a Republican, and particularly this Republican who is aligning himself so much with Donald Trump,” said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “A black voter who is motivated to go vote is a vote for John Bel Edwards.”
Early voting results showed Democrats made up a larger share of the electorate, 46 percent, than in the first round of balloting.
Trump’s last-minute intervention is meant to turn out as many Republican voters as possible. Trump is popular in the state, but not overwhelmingly so: 51 percent of Louisiana voters said they had a favorable opinion of the president in a poll conducted by the Alabama-based firm Cygnal; Trump took 58 percent of the vote in Louisiana in 2016.
The Republican National Committee (RNC) is pouring more than $1 million into late get-out-the-vote efforts, doubling its previous investment, an RNC official told The Hill. The committee has dispatched 60 paid staffers, and its internal polls show a similarly tight race, the official said.
Rispone has embraced Trump, who has appeared in several of the Republican’s campaign advertisements.
Edwards, conscious of Trump’s standing in the state, has promoted his own working relationship with the president. After the White House touted Louisiana job growth since President Trump took office, Edwards’s campaign agreed.
“Louisiana’s economy is moving in the right direction, and growing stronger every day. But don’t take Gov. Edwards’s word for it. The White House agrees,” Edwards campaign manager Richard Carbo said last week.
The race is consequential for Republicans, who once hoped for a clean sweep of the three governor’s contests in deep-red states this year. Those hopes were crushed last week, when Kentucky voters booted Gov. Matt Bevin (R) in a close election that Bevin is contesting.