UPDATE 11:02 p.m.:
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards won reelection Saturday, the second gubernatorial victory for Democrats in a red state this month.
Edwards narrowly defeated Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, despite President Donald Trump traveling to the state twice over the final 11 days of the race to campaign for the GOP candidate.
Voters in Louisiana went to the polls Saturday to decide a neck-and-neck race between the state’s moderate Democratic governor and a self-funding Republican challenger leaning on his support from President Donald Trump.
Early returns showed a very close contest, with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone trading the lead as the votes were tallied.
Edwards has framed his profile as a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat who keeps the liberal wing of his party at arm’s length. Rispone, meanwhile, is hoping a late-game cash infusion from the Republican National Committee plus two visits from Trump in the past two weeks carry him to the governor’s mansion.
The Louisiana contest is the last of three red-state races for governor this year, with Democrats prevailing narrowly in Kentucky, while Republicans held serve in Mississippi. Before the Kentucky election, Trump warned voters there that a defeat of incumbent GOP Gov. Matt Bevin would reflect poorly on him. Similarly, at a Louisiana rally this week, he told supporters, “You got to give me a big win, please, O.K.?”
A Rispone victory on Saturday would redeem Trump’s promise from his first visit to Louisiana last month, when he told supporters that if they held Edwards shy of a majority of the vote in the Oct. 12 primary, Republicans would win the general election in November. Voters delivered on the first part: Edwards earned 47 percent of the vote, while Rispone edged GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham for second place, 27 percent to 24 percent, earning a head-to-head shot with the incumbent in the runoff.
According to Advertising Analytics, Rispone’s campaign has spent $4.8 million since the primary and been bolstered by a number of Republican outside groups that brings overall GOP ad spending to over $10 million. Edwards’ reelection campaign has spent $4.6 million — and, including outside groups, the effort to reelect him has spent over $9 million.
Polls suggest Saturday’s election will be a nail-biter. A Mason-Dixon poll released earlier this week showed Edwards just 2 points in front of Rispone, well within the margin of error, with both men shy of the 50-percent mark.
The Rispone campaign has focused its attacks on portraying Edwards as an incompetent administrator who bungled the state’s Medicaid expansion and mishandled a sexual harassment allegation involving one of his main aides.
The Louisiana Republican Party has also aired ads in the final days of the election featuring Trump attacking Edwards “as a radical liberal.”
“Louisiana can send the radical left a message that they can never ignore. Vote for Eddie Rispone,” Trump said in the 30-second ad.
The Edwards campaign has argued that under the governor’s tenure the economy has improved, noting that the president’s reelection campaign touts the state’s strong economy when he visits. Edwards is also campaigning on his criminal justice reforms and Medicaid expansion.
At the same time, Edwards hasn’t shied away from noting his staunch opposition to abortion, including signing a “heartbeat” abortion ban that his allies hope underscores his identity as a conservative Democrat on the campaign trail.
Edwards has also nodded to the state’s other pastime on autumn Saturdays: Louisiana State football. He spoke to the top-ranked Tigers team before their showdown last week with then-No. 2 Alabama. And after LSU’s victory over the Crimson Tide, he called into head coach Ed Orgeron’s weekly radio show.
In the runoff, the Edwards campaign has emphasized turning out black voters. Scott Arceneaux, a veteran Democratic strategist who has worked in Louisiana and Florida and advised former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum in his gubernatorial run, joined the campaign in recent weeks to help with “get out the vote” efforts.
In an update memo to key Louisiana Democrats obtained by POLITICO, Edwards campaign manager Richard Carbo wrote, “Scott Arceneaux, a Louisiana native and veteran political strategist, is here for the runoff focusing on the GOTV/Turnout effort. Most of you know Scott, but he’s spent the last week digging into the numbers to make improvements to our field operation for the runoff.”
Those efforts paid dividends during the early-voting period, which ended last Saturday. Statistics show black voters accounted for 31 percent of early ballots, up from 25 percent in the early-voting period for the primary. The share of early votes cast by registered Democrats also ticked up, compared with the primary.
But Saturday’s election also brought a number of last-minute pushes to get voters to the polls. President Donald Trump tweeted shortly after 5 p.m. Central Time that voters still three hours to get out and vote for Rispone, saying his election would bring “[l]ower taxes and much more!”
On the Democratic side, presidential candidate Julián Castro pointed to some of the preferred campaign topics of the Edwards campaign.
“Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform and decency are on the ballot,” Castro tweeted.
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