BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Without a clear Republican favorite for Louisiana governor, President Donald Trump travels to the state Friday for an election eve rally that’s less about the GOP candidates and more a slash-and-burn hit against Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards.
Trump’s message to voters in Lake Charles will be less precise than traditional get-out-the-vote events. He’ll seek to unite a squabbling Republican Party against the Deep South’s only Democratic governor, trying to keep Edwards from a primary win, while not telling voters which GOP contender to back in Saturday’s election.
“Republicans must get out and vote for either of our two incredible candidates,” Trump said in one of several tweets about the Louisiana governor’s race.
Republican loyalties are split among two major candidates: Ralph Abraham, a third-term congressman and physician from rural northeast Louisiana, and Eddie Rispone, a businessman and longtime political donor from Baton Rouge who is making his first bid for office.
Abraham and Rispone each will attend the rally. Both claim long-term support from Trump, even as they quarrel over who backs the president more.
“The president deeply cares about Louisiana. Louisiana loves President Trump. It is a match that is literally made in heaven,” Abraham said.
The president is not endorsing either candidate to maximize chances that Edwards will fall below the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff, according to a White House aide and a campaign aide, both of whom asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss strategy. Trump plans to endorse whichever GOP candidate makes it to a runoff against Edwards, the aides said.
In Louisiana, all candidates run against each other, regardless of party, on the same primary ballot. With polls showing Edwards well in the lead, national Republicans have bombarded the state with millions in advertising and visits from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. to urge anti-Edwards votes and force a Nov. 16 runoff.
“Trump is going to energize the base, the people, the conservatives, make them recognize that we need to do something different,” Rispone said.
Pollster John Couvillon thinks such visits will have marginal impact, animating voters who already planned to show up at the polls. He thinks Edwards’ bigger problem is the U.S. House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, stirring up interest from voters in a red state who’ll want to cast their ballots in opposition to anyone aligned with Democrats.
“To some extent, you can’t entirely escape what has become the stigma of the national Democratic Party here in Louisiana,” Couvillon said.
Edwards isn’t the type of liberal, anti-Trump Democrat with whom the president usually clashes.
Louisiana’s governor is an anti-abortion, pro-gun West Point graduate who avoids criticizing Trump, talks about his strong rapport with the White House and calls the impeachment inquiry a distraction for Washington. He doesn’t focus on party affiliation and tries to avoid national political feuds in a state Trump won by 20 points.
While Edwards’ efforts to keep the president at bay in the governor’s race have been unsuccessful, the Democratic incumbent isn’t complaining about the rallies. Instead, he has downplayed them, calling it unsurprising that Trump backs members of his own party in the “hyperpartisan” environment of Washington. He said he would continue to “work well” with the president and focus on his own, bipartisan approach to governing.
“That’s the way we have moved our state forward, gotten out of the ditch. I work well with Republicans, with Democrats and with independents, anybody who wants to show up and work in good faith with me,” Edwards said.
He’ll need that crossover vote to win a second term.
Republicans nationally have targeted Edwards for ouster since his longshot election victory four years ago. But work to unify around one major contender failed, with the state’s top-tier, well-known GOP officials passing on the race.
Neither Abraham nor Rispone has been able to break away as the top competitor, even as Rispone poured $11 million of his own personal wealth into the campaign.
Party leaders’ efforts to keep the men from fighting each other have failed, raising concerns the backbiting could wound both GOP contenders and help Edwards. Republicans blame attacks among their own candidates for helping to elect Edwards four years ago.
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