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Louisiana’s Democratic governor forced into a runoff, a boost for Republicans and President Trump

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) before a debate with Republicans Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham in Baton Rouge.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) before a debate with Republicans Eddie Rispone and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham in Baton Rouge. (Bill Feig/AP)
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The Louisiana governor’s race will be decided in a runoff next month after Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards failed to win an outright majority in Saturday’s primary, a boost for President Trump and Republicans who have been eager for a one-on-one matchup.

Edwards, who is seeking a second term, needed to win more than 50 percent of the vote against five other candidates in the bipartisan primary. Edwards fell short by gaining just under 47 percent with nearly all the votes counted. He will face second-place finisher, conservative businessman Eddie Rispone, in a Nov. 16 runoff.

Rispone, a 70-year-old millionaire construction contractor, campaigned as an ardent Trump supporter and vowed to crack down on illegal immigration while bolstering the influence of Christian values.

Rispone, who poured more than $10 million of his own money into the race, narrowly edged past Rep. Ralph Abraham (R) to claim his spot on the ballot, winning just over 27 percent of the vote with nearly all the votes counted. The outcome was good news for Trump and national Republicans, who had feared just weeks ago that Edwards could win the election outright.

Trump did not endorse any of the Republican candidates, but the president traveled to Louisiana on Friday night to urge Republicans to vote for Abraham or Rispone in the race.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, Trump tweeted a celebratory note about the results.

“Congratulations to the Great State of Louisiana,” he said. “A big night. You will soon have a new and wonderful Governor, @EddieRispone. Your Taxes and Car Insurance Payments will go DOWN!”

Trump also fired off more than a half-dozen tweets over the past week attacking Edwards, who is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.

On Saturday night, Trump fired the first shots of the runoff election.

“The Governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, has done a poor job. NOW HE IS IN A RUNOFF WITH A GREAT REPUBLICAN, @EddieRispone. Thank you,” Trump tweeted, asserting that Edwards had fallen sharply “after I explained what a bad job the Governor was doing.”

Edwards, who is pro-gun and antiabortion, has been relatively popular throughout his term as he has worked to balance the budget. But Republicans believe he’s vulnerable in the runoff as white voters continue to flee the Democratic Party in Louisiana, a state Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016.

During the final days of the campaign, Rispone argued he was the “outsider” in the race as he overwhelmed Abraham with television ads. Although much of the GOP establishment in the state was backing Abraham, Rispone won over the state’s grass-roots conservative movement, including securing an endorsement from “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson.

Edwards, a prolific fundraiser, is expected to attack Rispone as being too partisan and divisive for the state. In a tweet Sunday, the governor vowed to fight on.

“It’s because of you that we’re going to win in November,” Edwards said. “I want to thank each and every one of you who have shared in my vision for this great state that we get to call home. Let’s keep working together, harder than ever before, to continue to put Louisiana first.”

The so-called “jungle primary” included six candidates, but Edwards was always considered the front-runner, while Abraham and Rispone were the leading GOP challengers.

Edwards, 53, was elected governor in 2015 after he easily defeated Republican David Vitter, who at the time was a U.S. senator marred in scandal. Edwards campaigned this year on a record of bipartisan work with the Republican-controlled legislature to balance the budget, expand Medicaid and reduce the prison population.

“Medicaid expansion is still the easiest big decision I’ve ever made as governor,” Edwards said during the final debate of the campaign, noting he extended health insurance to nearly 500,000 people.

But Edwards, a devout Catholic, had a rocky relationship with abortion rights supporters. In June, Edwards outraged activists and Democratic leaders when he signed a bill that outlawed abortion when a “fetal heartbeat” was detected. The legislation, which advocates said could outlaw abortion as early as the sixth week of a pregnancy, did not include an exception for rape or incest.

In the fight for GOP voters between Abraham and Rispone, both sought to link themselves to Trump as they campaigned as staunch conservatives.

Abraham, a practicing physician and two-term congressman who represents the northeastern part of the state, had the support of many party leaders. In Congress, Abraham, 65, was a reliable vote for GOP leadership but generally maintained a low-key presence on Capitol Hill.

Rispone, owner of a large contracting business in Baton Rouge, tried to position himself as the outsider in the race. He flooded airwaves with ads highlighting his Christian faith, his opposition to abortion and his support for Trump’s policies.

“Donald Trump ran on cleaning up the swamp in Washington,” Rispone said in a campaign ad. “Of course, we have that in Louisiana today. We have people who make a living off government.”

At times, though, Rispone struggled to answer questions about some of Trump’s controversial actions. During the debate, a moderator pressed Rispone about how he can campaign on moral values while staying quiet about Trump’s behavior.

“I don’t judge other people,” Rispone finally said. “I just don’t do that. It’s not up to me to judge someone else’s moral character.”

Some Republicans also criticized the tone of Rispone’s campaign, including an ad that accused Abraham of voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hundreds of times. Abraham noted that it’s common for some congressional votes, such as “naming of a post office,” to be bipartisan and nearly unanimous.

But Abraham and Rispone spent much of the campaign teaming up to attack Edwards’s record.

Although neither Abraham nor Rispone vowed to reverse the expansion of Medicaid, they accused the governor of mismanaging its rollout. They also vowed to fully rescind the 1 percent sales tax increase for which Edwards fought to help balance the budget.

Trump began taking a heightened interest in the contest about a month ago as polls showed that Edwards could win the primary outright.

Republicans are hoping to rebound after losing seven governorships in the 2018 midterm election, including in Wisconsin and Michigan, two states expected to be critical to the president’s reelection hopes.

Mississippi and Kentucky are also holding gubernatorial elections this year. Trump easily won both states in 2016, but Democrats believe they have a shot at winning the gubernatorial races.

In Kentucky, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear is locked in a close contest against incumbent Matt Bevin (R) in the Nov. 5 general election. Bevin is deeply unpopular and has also been trying to link himself to Trump, who is expected to campaign for him before the election.

Mississippi voters will also choose their next governor that day after Gov. Phil Bryant (R) was term-limited. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, the GOP nominee, is running against Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. Mississippi has not elected a Democratic governor in nearly two decades, but Hood has easily won his four prior statewide races for attorney general.

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.