“I don’t like Donald Trump at all, and Eddie Rispone is Donald Trump’s choice,” the 67-year-old retired welder said.
But even with such clarity about the Republican ticket, Peterson said he’s “just not sure” whether he will vote in Saturday’s runoff election.
“We’ll just have to see when that time comes up whether I will actually go do it,” he added.
Peterson’s ambivalence about voting highlights the major challenge facing Edwards and Democratic candidates nationally as they seek to mobilize African American voters to the polls. That’s especially true here in the Deep South, where white Trump supporters have been pouring into voting booths to support GOP candidates, leaving African Americans as one of the sole reliably Democratic constituencies.
Edwards, 53, was forced into a runoff with Rispone, a conservative businessman who has made his allegiance to Trump a centerpiece of his campaign, after the governor failed to win a majority in Louisiana’s bipartisan “jungle” primary last month. Edwards received about 47 percent of the vote, which analysts partially attribute to a weaker-than-expected turnout among African Americans, who comprise about 33 percent of the state’s population.
After the primary, Edwards adjusted his strategy to try to boost turnout, including adding a new campaign adviser and speaking more directly to the black community. He stepped up his outreach to African American pastors, said Louisiana state Sen. Troy Carter, and began appearing in more intimate settings with black voters to explain his record.
“The governor has an incredible story to tell, but our fear was we are missing our story,” said Carter, referring to black Louisianans.
But with polls continuing to show a close race, Edwards’s campaign is reviving a debate among Democrats about whether party leaders have been doing enough to spark enthusiasm in the black community.
“I think the Democratic Party needs to face reality — you can’t keep calling your base your base when you are not doing anything to entice your base, excite your base, invigorate your base,” said Jay H. Banks, a New Orleans city councilman who has become more active in trying to boost Edwards.
Although Democrats picked up a governorship in Kentucky last week, the party’s hopes of winning an open seat in Mississippi were dashed when the state’s Democratic attorney general, Jim Hood, fell about 47,000 votes short of defeating Republican Tate Reeves, the state’s lieutenant governor. Brad Chism, a Mississippi Democratic strategist who advised Hood, said the Democrat’s defeat can be partially traced to underwhelming turnout among African Americans.
While Democrats picked up seven governorships nationwide last year, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida, both black Democrats, narrowly lost their gubernatorial races. In both states, a surge in African American turnout was not enough to overcome recent trends of white, rural voters breaking sharply for GOP candidates.
Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, is fighting those same voting trends in Louisiana as Trump stumps hard to defeat him. Trump carried Louisiana by about 20 points in 2016, and the president returned here on Thursday night for his second campaign rally in support of Rispone in the runoff election.
“Remember Saturday. It’s a close one, and you’re going to have a great Republican governor,” Trump said. “If you want to defend your values, your jobs and your freedoms, you have to replace governor John Bel Edwards with a true conservative.”
“At the end of the day, this is going to be a turnout election,” said Anthony Ramirez, a Rispone spokesman. “Louisiana voters are tired of career politicians and they want a conservative outsider like President Trump to win this state.”
There are signs that African American voters plan to show up for the runoff in far larger numbers than they did in the primary. According to an analysis by pollster John M. Couvillon, African Americans accounted for 31 percent of the votes cast during the state’s early voting period that ended last Saturday, an increase of about 3 percent from their share of the total primary electorate.
Couvillon, founder of Baton Rouge-based JMC Analytics and Polling, said black turnout as a percentage of the electorate in the state is now roughly on par with President Obama’s historic elections in 2008 and 2012.
With Edwards winning a larger share of the white vote than Obama, especially in the New Orleans suburbs, Couvillon said the uptick in African American turnout could be insurmountable for Rispone if the trend persists through Election Day. Still, Couvillon released a poll on Thursday that showed the contest deadlocked, with Edwards and Rispone both receiving about 45 percent of the vote.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Edwards said the early voting results show that his efforts to more directly reach out to African Americans appears to be paying off.
“There is an energy, there is an excitement, and there is a sense of urgency that, for whatever reason, didn’t exist during the primary,” Edwards said.
African American leaders say the black community is rallying around Edwards as they become more aware of his record, including his successful push to expand Medicaid, increase teacher pay and overhaul the state’s criminal justice system to try to reduce racial disparities. Activists say Rispone, a 70-year-old millionaire construction contractor, also has helped to energize the black community by mounting a campaign that at times has appeared dismissive of New Orleans, a majority-black city and the state’s largest.
Rispone frequently criticized New Orleans during his primary campaign, including repeated attacks accusing it of being a “sanctuary city,” a label that state and city officials have rejected.
During the runoff election, Democratic-aligned groups have fought back with their own bare-knuckled tactics. In one radio ad by a group called the Black Organization for Leadership Development, or BOLD, Banks compares Rispone to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
“What is the difference between David Duke, Eddie Rispone and Donald Trump? The only difference is that Rispone will be governor if you don’t stop him,” Banks says.
Republicans blasted the ad, but the message resonated with some shoppers at Palms Plaza shopping center in the primarily African American Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans.
“Because of the president himself, I think now it’s kind of like a wake-up call and people are taking things a lot more seriously,” said Anthonise Banks, 42, while sitting under the hair dryer at B U Natural Hair Studio. “When [Trump] comes here, it makes everyone more alert that we could have someone like that run our state, and we don’t need that.”
Anthonise Banks, a teacher, already voted for Edwards during early voting — which was a common response from patrons here in Gentilly, especially women. But others remain apathetic during the final hours of the campaign.
Politicians “don’t give a f--- about us. All they care about is the green dollar,” said Doherty Scott, 54, adding he does not plan to vote because he’s disillusioned by all the “millionaires and billionaires” who now run for state and federal offices.
In last week’s election in Mississippi, Chism said Hood’s inability to rally a large turnout is a warning sign for Democrats nationwide that “you can’t start from scratch every year and expect to overperform with low- and moderate-income voters.”
State Democratic parties need to invest in full-time organizers and technology to better collect data on the interests and movements of low-income voters, he added.
“Many white, southern statewide campaigns are utilizing a playbook from 2007, that is pre-Obama, pre-Citizens United, and I would say pre-Trump, and the world has changed dramatically since then,” Chism said.
Cliff Albright, the founder of the Atlanta-based Black Voters Matter Fund, a political action committee focused on boosting African American turnout, said Hood never developed a message that would resonate with black voters, especially in the Mississippi Delta. A conservative Democrat and four-term attorney general, Hood also shied away from bringing in high-profile African American surrogates to campaign for him, Albright added.
“There was a desire for him to be more direct, even doing a commercial — that instead of just speaking in general terms, acknowledging the impacts that a lack of Medicaid expansion [in Mississippi] or the lack of rural hospitals are having in black communities,” Albright said.
Albright said white Democratic candidates in the South could have taken a lesson from former congressman Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat who narrowly lost his bid for the U.S. Senate bid in Texas last year.
Albright noted African American interest in O’Rourke’s candidacy surged during that campaign after he gave an impassioned defense of former NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. Exit polls showed African Americans accounted for 12 percent of the Texas electorate last year — roughly equal to their overall share of the population.
“It takes a certain kind of candidate, that will speak to issues in a certain kind of way to galvanize black voters,” Albright said.
But white Democratic politicians in the South face a difficult balancing act to drive up turnout in the state’s urban areas without alienating some other groups of voters.
Mary Patricia Wray, a Louisiana political strategist who has advised candidates from both parties, said even a small blowback among white voters to Edwards’s outreach to African Americans could prove decisive in the outcome of the election.
“We are still not really in a post-racial Louisiana, so when people keep hearing the message that black voter turnout is up … it could also certainly have a slight impact on turnout among the hard right,” she said.
Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.