WEST MONROE, La. — Walking away from a T-shirt tent at a Republican rally earlier this week, her arms full of pro-Trump swag, Resa Brady acknowledged she knew little about the state’s Republican candidate for governor.
But Ms. Brady, 61, said she would probably be voting for the candidate, Eddie Rispone, regardless, as a demonstration of support for the president she admires.
“I’m trying to protect my man here,” said Ms. Brady, a hearing instruments specialist, hours before a rally Wednesday night in which President Trump, stumping for Mr. Rispone, flashed his megawatt popularity in a state that he won by nearly 20 points in 2016.
Though Mr. Trump has readily injected himself in several high-profile races this year, the governor’s runoff in Louisiana next weekend is shaping up to be one of the purest tests of the president’s power and sway. But unlike other Trump-favored candidates in governor’s races in Kentucky and Mississippi, Mr. Rispone, a Baton Rouge construction magnate, is a political neophyte who had little name recognition until his campaign geared up a few months ago.
And Mr. Rispone has lassoed his fortunes to the president like few others: the candidate’s first two runoff ads, as noted by The Associated Press, showed Mr. Trump speaking at a rally, with no footage of Mr. Rispone at all.
Republicans are hoping that the Trump mystique will rub off and propel Mr. Rispone to victory in a tightly contested showdown with Gov. John Bel Edwards, a rare Democratic Southern governor who has nimbly surfed his state’s thoroughly Republican tides with his conservative stances on guns and abortion. It is an open question whether Mr. Edwards can stay upright under a last-minute Trumpian tsunami.
On Wednesday, the president arrived in Monroe, La., and told a crowd of thousands at the local civic center that their governor was, in fact, “a radical liberal Democrat.”
Mr. Rispone — who in affect and message resembles a bayou Ross Perot — was given a few minutes at the microphone, where he argued that Louisiana needed “an outsider, someone with serious business skills, someone that’s not beholden to special interests, someone that’s got backbone to go against the status quo — someone like Trump!”
With this message, along more than $10 million of his own money, Mr. Rispone scored a second-place finish in last month’s nonpartisan primary, coming out just ahead of another conservative Republican, Ralph Abraham, a United States congressman. (Mr. Edwards won roughly 47 percent of the vote to Mr. Rispone’s 27 percent.)
But with Republican support now consolidating around Mr. Rispone, polls show his face-off with Mr. Edwards to be essentially deadlocked.
Nationalizing the race makes sense for Mr. Rispone, given Mr. Edwards’s membership in a Democratic Party that is broadly unpopular in Louisiana. Mr. Edwards has so far overcome that mismatch with his custom-tailored cultural fit.
Raised in tiny Amite, La., Mr. Edwards, the son of a Tangipahoa sheriff, graduated from the United States Military Academy and served eight years as an active-duty Airborne Ranger. He is a good friend of Louisiana State University’s beloved football coach, Ed Orgeron, who met him at a south Louisiana duck hunting camp and appeared at a fund-raiser earlier this year. It is a big name as far as allies go, but not the biggest, as Mr. Edwards has been forced to acknowledge.
“There’s a reason my opponent is calling in the president,” Mr. Edwards said at an event at a park in Monroe on Wednesday, a few hours before the Trump rally. “It’s because he doesn’t have a plan for the state of Louisiana.”
“Eddie knows he cannot win on the issues,” the governor added, as always careful to aim any criticism away from Mr. Trump and on to Washington. “He cannot win if this election is about Louisiana and what is best for our people.”
Mr. Rispone is a Baton Rouge native with his own bootstrapping Louisiana story to tell: In 1989 he and his brother founded ISC Constructors, a specialty contracting company that now boasts annual revenues of $350 million, according to the campaign.
Mr. Rispone has said he would follow the Trumpian model for economic growth, with a focus on cutting taxes and regulations, ideas with a natural constituency in a state that is dependent on the oil and gas industry and wary of big government.
This heavy emphasis on tax cuts is at the center of one of the few actual policy debates in the race. Mr. Rispone has argued it would unleash business growth, but Mr. Edwards has said it would return Louisiana to the days of slashed services and budget shortfalls brought on in part by the tax-cutting fervor of Bobby Jindal, the former governor whose fiscal troubles helped bring a Democrat like him into office in the first place.
Mr. Rispone’s critics have said his embrace of Mr. Trump is a fill-in for his lack of policy details beyond the general talk of cuts. This week, the radio host Newell Normand, a former Jefferson Parish sheriff, blasted Mr. Rispone on his influential New Orleans radio talk show.
“Eddie Rispone’s strategy thus far is say nothing, reveal little, ride the coattails of Trump and, therefore wait to see if Trump can drag him across the finish line,” Mr. Normand said. “All the while Eddie Rispone has already sold us out — we’re actually now, in nationalizing this governor’s race, a pawn in Washington politics. I don’t know about you, but as a Republican, I find that very distasteful.”
With early voting already underway, Louisianans, like the rest of the country, are wondering exactly how much stroke the president still has. Mr. Trump held rallies in both Kentucky and Mississippi before this week’s governor’s contests in those states, with what appear to be mixed results: Matt Bevin, Kentucky’s Republican governor who had angered voters with his derisive comments about protesting teachers, came about 5,000 votes short of his Democratic rival, Attorney General Andy Beshear. Mr. Bevin has not conceded and a recanvass of votes is scheduled for next week. But Mr. Trump’s favored candidate in the Mississippi race, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, handily defeated a popular Democrat, Attorney General Jim Hood.
Presidential visits to Louisiana could accomplish several specific things for Mr. Rispone. The choice of Monroe, far from Louisiana’s centers of power, was ideal to shore up support in a conservative part of the state where Mr. Rispone might nonetheless have some trouble. It is the home of Mr. Abraham, his primary opponent, who was the target of fierce surprise attacks by Mr. Rispone during the campaign.
“He’s got a lot of work to do because Ralph Abraham is almost a legend here,” said Dr. John Cooksey, an ophthalmologist in Monroe who represented the area in Congress as a Republican for three terms. Mr. Abraham has endorsed Mr. Rispone but Dr. Cooksey was not sure that would be enough for some.
“If anyone in the world could improve Rispone’s position,” he said, “I think it’s Trump.”
Roy Fletcher, a Baton Rouge-based political consultant who is currently working for a political action committee that supports Mr. Edwards, said there were few minds to be changed at this point in the race. But a Trump rally can fire up otherwise halfhearted voters amid the usual fall distractions of football and hunting.
“It’s turned into a turnout race, pure and simple,” said Mr. Fletcher, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans in past races. “They’re just locked in, and so the choice is not Eddie or John Bel. The choice is hunting or voting.”
Mr. Trump is a turnout tool that works both ways.
Some New Orleans residents have been receiving mailers from the state Democratic Party with a photo of civil-rights-era protesters marching over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., urging them to vote early for Mr. Edwards. “With Trump in the White House, there is too much at stake not to vote in this election for governor,” it reads.
Both strategies appear to be working.
John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster, said that early voting so far was nearly as high as it is during presidential years, fueled by a surge in Republican turnout as well as a rise in African-American turnout. For now, the Edwards campaign can “justifiably feel good,” about the numbers, Mr. Couvillon said.
But things can change quickly.
After the Trump rally, Mr. Couvillon found that while there was little effect statewide, early voting by white residents spiked immediately in the area around Monroe. “A Trump visit can’t hurt,” he said.
Mr. Trump plans to be in Bossier City, La., next Thursday, two days before the election.
Richard Fausset reported from Monroe, and Campbell Robertson from Louisville, Ky.
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