The Associated Press declared Edwards the winner at about 10 p.m. local time. He defeated Rispone with about 51 percent of the vote, leading by roughly 40,000 votes out of more than 1.5 million cast.
“How sweet it is,” Edwards told a crowd of cheering supporters at a victory rally late Saturday at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge.
Edwards said he had spoken with Rispone earlier in the evening. “We both agreed that the time for campaigning is over,” he said, “and now our shared love for Louisiana is always more important than the partisan differences that sometimes divide us.”
“And as for the president, God bless his heart,” Edwards added mockingly.
Edwards’s victory is another setback for Trump, who traveled to Louisiana twice over the past month to campaign for Rispone and sent a series of tweets urging Republicans to vote. The president’s popularity in the South has failed to prop up GOP candidates in two of the three states that held gubernatorial elections this year, allowing Democrats to gain governorships for the third consecutive year.
In Kentucky, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear unseated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin this month. In January, 24 of the nation’s governors will be Democrats, up from 15 at the end 2017.
Rispone told supporters in a speech Saturday night he was disappointed to lose the race. He thanked Trump for coming to the state to help his campaign and called on the crowd to give the president a round of applause. “That man loves America and he loves Louisiana,” Rispone said.
The Louisiana election caps off a grueling campaign in which Edwards, a relatively conservative Democrat, worked to prove his party could still lead a state that has continued to drift to the right in the Trump era.
Edwards was forced into a runoff with Republican challenger Rispone, 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 in the primary, with Rispone finishing second after he edged past the third-place finisher, Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham.
Throughout the primary campaign, Edwards expressed confidence that he could win a majority and avoid a runoff. But on the night before the Oct. 12 primary, Trump traveled to Lake Charles, La., to campaign for Rispone and Abraham, a move analysts said helped drive up Republican turnout.
The president made another pitch for Rispone on Saturday.
“Louisiana, 3 hours left, get out and Vote for @EddieRispone for Governor,” he tweeted. “Lower taxes and much more!”
In 2016, Trump carried Louisiana by about 20 points, and Democrats continue to lose voters and elected officials in the state’s southern marshes, as well as in the rural northern and western part of the state. On Saturday, Rispone pulled ahead in those areas as expected, while Edwards led in urban hubs such as Baton Rouge.
But Edwards, who was minority leader in Louisiana’s House of Representatives before being elected governor in 2015, has remained relatively popular throughout his term and was optimistic his reelection bid could withstand the head winds of national politics, including the ongoing drama in Washington over the impeachment inquiry.
“We need to keep moving forward, and we can’t take a chance of going back,” Edwards said at a campaign event in New Orleans this past week.
After he succeeded Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), Edwards worked with a Republican legislature to balance the budget, imposing a sales tax increase. He also successfully fought to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which extended coverage to nearly a half-million residents. The governor also pushed to hike teacher pay while working to drive down the state’s unemployment rate to the lowest level in more than a decade.
One of Edwards’s most high-profile accomplishments has been legislation reworking the criminal justice system in a state that had one of the nation’s highest and most racially unbalanced incarceration rates. The bipartisan legislation, which reduced sentences for some drug crimes and made it easier for some inmates to seek parole, could cut the state’s prison population by 10 percent over a decade, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Though many of Edwards’s policies have been praised by Democrats, he has clashed with liberal activists and women’s rights organizations over his repeated support for antiabortion measures. Over the summer, Edwards signed a “heartbeat bill” that outlawed abortion as early as the sixth week of pregnancy, without exceptions for rape or incest.
Edwards also tried to maintain a good relationship with Trump, who invited him to a state dinner. Earlier in the fall, as Edwards tried to shore up support from white voters, the governor aired a television ad that included footage of him meeting with Trump.
Trump, however, repeatedly railed against Edwards during the campaign, referring to him as a “radical leftist.” Trump also falsely accused Edwards of supporting gun control measures.
“You’re going to fire your Democratic governor who’s done a lousy job,” Trump said at his pre-primary rally in Lake Charles.
Rispone, a millionaire construction contractor from Baton Rouge, also aggressively went after Edwards’s record, sending out controversial mailers that blamed his criminal justice overhaul for releasing murderers and sex offenders into the community.
Rispone campaigned as a staunch conservative who would restore “Christian values” to the state. He vowed to crack down on illegal immigration, threatening to step in as governor to prevent New Orleans from becoming a “sanctuary city.” New Orleans leaders have strongly denied that the city fits that label.
“When I am governor, we will crack down — HARD — on every single criminal illegal and terrorist gang,” Rispone said in one newspaper ad.
To get his message out, Rispone has spent more than $12 million of his own money on his campaign, flooding the airwaves with television ads. But his hard-charging campaign style has alienated some Republicans who believe he used unfair tactics against Abraham in the primary.
Rispone, for example, accused Abraham of voting at times with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Abraham allies were outraged, noting it’s common for some bills in Congress to pass with near-unanimous support.
In the weeks leading up to runoff, both the White House and national Republicans worked hard to unite the GOP behind Rispone, especially in the northern part of the state that Abraham represents in Congress.
But there were signs that tensions persisted.
A few days before the election, Abraham’s son-in-law contributed $5,000 to Edwards’s campaign, the News Star newspaper in Monroe, La., reported.
Edwards, however, faced his own challenges in trying to cobble together a majority in his bid for a second term.
Black turnout did spike during the state’s week-long period of early voting leading up to the runoff, making up about 31 percent of that electorate.
The Louisiana race followed a tight gubernatorial race in Kentucky, where Democrats ultimately scored a major victory, unseating Republican incumbent Matt Bevin, who campaigned as a staunch Trump ally. Republicans fared better in Mississippi, where Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves defeated his Democrat challenger for an open seat.
Democrats have made a net gain in governorships for the third consecutive year. The party picked up seven governorships last year in the 2018 midterm elections, including winning several Midwestern states that Trump carried in 2016.
Democrats also gained a governorship in 2017, when Gov. Phil Murphy (D) replaced Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey in the same year that Virginia voters elected Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to replace former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe.
Hannah Knowles and Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.