The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Louisiana’s Democratic governor seeks reelection as Trump holds last-minute rally to boost Republican challengers

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards stumps for reelection during a campaign stop in New Orleans on July 8. (David Grunfeld/AP)
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As the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, John Bel Edwards appeared to be doing everything necessary to win a second term in Louisiana, a state whose populist Democratic roots seem to fray a bit more each year.

Edwards signed some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws . He cozied up to President Trump, scoring an invite to a state dinner at the White House. And in a state with a robust Catholic population, Edwards aired television ads showing him shaking hands with Pope Francis.

But all that still might not be enough for the governor to win his reelection battle outright on Saturday, as Trump holds an 11th-hour rally to boost support for the two leading GOP challengers.

Trump is wading into a so-called “jungle” primary where Edwards and five other candidates from both parties will be on the ballot. Edwards needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a Nov. 16 runoff, where he would likely face either Rep. Ralph Abraham (R) or GOP businessman Eddie Rispone.

Trump encouraged rallygoers to cast their ballots Saturday before the Louisiana State University-University of Florida football game.

“I need you to send the radical Democrat establishment a loud and clear message: You are going to fire your Democrat governor who has done a lousy job,” he said.

“Louisiana cannot take four more years of a liberal Democrat governor raising your taxes, killing your jobs, attacking your industries and taking money from open borders extremists,” Trump said. “Tomorrow, you got to vote John Bel Edwards out.”

Trump praised both Rispone and Abraham, saying: “They’re both great people.”

As the first statewide contest since the impeachment inquiry against the president began, the election’s outcome will indicate whether Trump has sway in other upcoming gubernatorial elections, including in next month’s races in Kentucky and Mississippi. For Democrats, Saturday’s contest will test whether a relatively conservative Democrat can still count on liberal urban voters and African Americans to turn out in big numbers in a state where their party continues to shrink.

“For a Democrat to get 50 percent in a deep red state was always going to be a challenge,” said Mary Patricia Wray, a Louisiana-based political consultant and a former Edwards aide. “I know [Edwards] anticipated things becoming very tight at the end of the race, and I think that is exactly what we see happening.”

Several recent polls have shown Edwards’s support in the election hovering in the mid-40 percent. Abraham and Rispone are locked in a tight battle for second place.

Although Trump has not endorsed either Republican, the president hopes he can help force Edwards into a runoff by driving up GOP turnout. Trump won Louisiana by 20 percentage points in 2016, the best showing for a GOP presidential candidate there since Ronald Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984.

“We’ve always felt this race is going to go to a runoff,” said Amelia Chasse Alcivar, the communications director for the Republican Governors Association, which has spent more than $4.5 million on the race. “The governor has not demonstrated any ability to get the support of the majority of Louisiana voters, and this is an electorate looking for a change.”

There are reasons for the GOP to be optimistic. During the state’s week of early voting that ended Saturday, about 375,000 people voted, ranking only behind the 2016 presidential election in early voting turnout. Republicans cast 42 percent of those ballots, even though they make up just 30 percent of the state’s registered voters, said John M. Couvillon, founder of JMC Analytics and Polling.

“I don’t think this happened in a vacuum,” said Couvillon. “In my view, impeachment played a part because this is a huge difference in partisan enthusiasm.”

But Democrats say Edwards remains well-positioned to avoid the runoff, drawing on his personal popularity as well as his record as a folksy, bipartisan leader.

After serving in the Louisiana House of Representatives, Edwards was elected governor in 2015 with an easy defeat of Republican David Vitter, who was a U.S. Senator marred in scandal at the time. Edwards succeeded Bobby Jindal, a Republican who left office deeply unpopular amid deep budget cuts and a $2 billion budget deficit.

After he took office, 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.

One of Edwards’s most high-profile accomplishments has been legislation reforming the criminal justice system in a state that had one of the nation’s highest, and most racially unbalanced, incarceration rates. The 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.

State Rep. Terry Landry, a black Democrat who represents the Lafayette area, said Edwards’s work on that issue has helped solidify support among African Americans, who make up about a third of the state’s population. Louisiana Democrats historically need them to turn out in large numbers to win statewide.

“When you get through all the Republican rhetoric, they still have not found a message about why we should not reelect this guy,” said Landry, who believes Trump’s Friday visit will energize black voters.

But Edwards, a devout Catholic, has angered some Democrats over his repeated support for antiabortion measures, including a “heartbeat bill” he signed this summer that outlawed abortion as early as the sixth week of a pregnancy. The bill did not make exceptions for rape or incest.

“This was an opportunity for the governor to show real empathy and compassion for his constituents, many of whom were low-income women, and he signed it anyway,” said Amy Irvin, executive director of the New Orleans Abortion Fund, an abortion rights advocacy group.

Irvin now fears Edwards actions could accelerate the abortion case landing before the Supreme Court, threatening Roe v. Wade. But she still expects liberal women will turn out and vote for Edwards on Saturday.

“The people I talk to continue to be upset with the governor, and indicated they are not volunteering or making donations to his campaign, but also feel they don’t have any other choice but to vote for him,” said Irvin, noting the expansion of Medicaid and Edwards’s support for equal pay and an increase in the minimum wage also “make a real difference in women’s lives.”

But in the final days of the campaign, Republican groups have been trying to undercut Edwards’s support among women by accusing him of overlooking a former aide’s alleged sexual harassment.

In separate television ads released last week, the Republican Governors Association and the Truth in Politics PAC hammered Edwards for his decision to hire Johnny Anderson as his deputy chief of staff, a veteran state official and Democratic operative who faced claims of sexual harassment in the 2000s. A new allegation surfaced in 2017 when he worked for Edwards, and the woman who made that allegation was featured in the Truth and Politics ad.

“Six women reported Johnny Anderson for harassment. The governor hired him anyway,” Juanita Washington, a former state employee, says in the emotional ad. “I was his latest victim.”

In a statement, Edwards noted that Anderson abruptly left state government after Washington’s allegations surfaced.

“Gov. Edwards believes Ms. Washington’s allegations, and he has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment,” said Eric Holl, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign.

Still, some party leaders concede they face a potentially insurmountable challenge as white, rural southern voters continue to flee the Democratic Party.

The Advocate newspaper noted, as of June, Louisiana had 6 percent fewer registered Democrats than it did when Edwards took office in January 2016. The number of registered Republicans has increased by about 10 percent during the same period.

Meanwhile, as Edwards’s Republican challengers fight to make the runoff, both Abraham and Rispone are campaigning as strong Trump allies.

Rispone, who argues he’s the “outsider” candidate, has aired a television ad calling Trump’s policies “phenomenal.” Abraham, whom many state party leaders support, has argued that the House should expel House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over her support for the impeachment inquiry.

Yet, some Louisiana Republicans doubt the impeachment drama in Washington will factor heavily in the outcome.

“I don’t think it makes a difference,” said Roby Dyer, chairwoman of the Calcasieu Parish Republican Executive Committee. “Most people were going to vote anyway, and I don’t think most of them aren’t even listening to that nonsense.”

But Wray says Trump’s visit only adds to the last-minute uncertainty of the campaign.

In 2015, Edwards won 29 counties that Trump also carried a year later. Most of the counties are rural, and Wray noted that Trump’s visit coincides with Friday night football.

“They will be tuning into the local radio and local television for their third religion — after real religion and Mardi Gras,” said Wray, referring to football highlights and scores. “So, they will tune in, and also definitely hear Trump’s message.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report