BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone’s campaign manager said Wednesday that the Republican challenger lost because Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards is a strong candidate and popular governor.
Bryan Reed defended the Rispone team’s strategy of trying to nationalize the race, linking Rispone to Donald Trump and repeatedly describing the moderate Edwards as a liberal similar to Democratic Party leaders in Washington. But Reed said polling showed Edwards maintained strong approval ratings, despite repeated GOP attacks.
“On Election Day, our exit poll had John Bel Edwards’ approval rating at 56%,” Reed said. “And so what we were doing is we were asking the voters of Louisiana to fire somebody they liked, that they thought was doing a good job. That is very difficult.”
Edwards won Saturday’s runoff election against Rispone by 40,000 votes, getting 51% to reach a second term that begins in January.
Reed spoke at a Louisiana State University event debriefing strategists who worked on the campaigns for Edwards, Rispone and the primary’s third-place finisher, Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham.
Though Rispone regularly panned Edwards’ tenure in office, Reed said the campaign believed it couldn’t win a referendum on the Democratic governor’s job performance because voters liked him.
“Our pathway to victory was making an ideological choice. It needed for us to be a conservative versus a liberal, an outsider versus a career politician,” Reed said, suggesting he didn’t see a better strategy for the runoff.
Edwards campaign manager Richard Carbo credited the Democratic incumbent with remaining disciplined and staying on message, rather than tangling with Trump. The president traveled to Louisiana three times trying to unseat Edwards.
“There’s no competing with the leader of the free world when he comes and campaigns against you,” Carbo said. “Our strategy became, ‘Continue telling the story that we’ve been telling all along.’”
He said Trump’s attacks framing Edwards as a “radical liberal who’s going to take away your guns” couldn’t work against the Democratic governor, a pro-gun, anti-abortion West Point graduate and former Army Ranger.
Trump never acknowledged the Louisiana election results on Twitter, where he regularly attacked Edwards. But the governor said Trump called him Monday to congratulate him.
“He said he wanted to resume our working relationship, and I told him that was my interest as well,” Edwards said Wednesday on his monthly radio call-in show.
To reach victory, Edwards drew strong Democratic turnout from African American voters while also getting crossover support from Republicans and independents. He was helped when top-tier GOP contenders passed on the race. Abraham and Rispone were less well-known.
While Rispone spent millions of his own wealth on the campaign, Abraham consultant Lionel Rainey said the north Louisiana congressman was hamstrung by a lack of funds. Rainey estimated Abraham spent 15% of what the other candidates spent on TV ads, unable to air spots on broadcast TV in Baton Rouge at all.
Abraham also lacked the money to respond to attack ads that Rispone launched against his fellow Republican challenger in September. Rainey called it a “good play” from the Rispone campaign, even though Rainey derided the ads suggesting Abraham didn’t support Trump and voted often with Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“If you have a campaign that you’re running against that is willing to say things that are blatantly false, fundamentally untrue about a candidate, and they have unlimited funds to do that, I don’t know what you can do to get past that,” Rainey said.
The attack ads helped Rispone leapfrog Abraham into the runoff against Edwards.
But in that runoff, Edwards picked up some Abraham voters, and Republicans question whether Rispone’s harsh attacks against the congressman were the reason. Reed doubled down on the ads, saying Abraham proved to be a stronger candidate than expected.
“There really was not a path to victory unless we went negative,” Reed said.