Runoff tough to predict, La. Political analyst says

John Dupont

A runoff for an incumbent governor has been a rarity in Louisiana politics, but the current political climate plays a significant role in what shaped the upcoming race between Gov. John Bel Edwards and opponent Eddie Rispone, according to a state political analyst.

The components include the approach both candidates took in the primary, and the overall attitude among voting groups, said Pearson Cross, a radio talk show host and political science professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.

The strong showing by Rispone brought perhaps the biggest surprise, particularly because the Republican had never run for a public office and entered the race a virtual unknown, said Cross, who addressed the Press Club of Baton Rouge at its meeting last week.

"Rispone ran a very different campaign than most candidates," he said. "He got home most nights around 9 p.m., slept in his own bed and did very little barnstorming, but spent a lot of money and orchestrated a blitzkrieg on social media that capitalized on an antigovernment sentiment and fellow Republican Ralph Abraham and portrayed him as "another lying politician."

Cross called Rispone a "Trump surrogate" whose identity caught on well for angry, rural white voters.

Much of the anger among that sector stemmed from the Medicaid expansion – which Gov. Edwards signed in an executive order when he took office in 2016 – as well as the perception of being "anti-oil" and "pro-lawyer."

The white voters played the biggest role in the governor's failure to claim victory in the primary, Cross said.

Only 31 percent of the white vote went to JBE, who needs 35 percent of the white turnout to support him.

Edwards drew 90 percent of the African American vote, but a low turnout among that sector – only 26 percent – showed up for the Oct. 12 primary. He needed at least 35 percent of the African American vote to claim victory in the primary, Cross said.

Results from the primary, coupled with a traditionally low turnout for runoffs, paint a murky picture for the outcome.

"I'd say it will be a tossup," Cross said. "I have trouble believing Gov. Edwards will get up to 50 percent by Nov. 16, particularly because of the lower turnout.

"He is the governor, and he has a very smart team, but nothing is a guarantee," he said.

A victory will not guarantee smooth sailing if Edwards wins.

Republicans have come closer to a "super majority" in the House, which could create stumbling blocks on legislation and budgets he hopes to push forward in a second term. He will also face a much more Republican senate, if elected, according to Cross.

The influx of national Republican dignitaries – most notably President Trump – will likely make a strong push for Rispone leading to the election, as well.

The lean toward Trump has possibly been the best playing card for Rispone, Cross said.

"His ad spots have shown him throwing a football, saying he likes Trump and wants to stand by him," he said. "His ad spots have been completely contentless, but they're a clarion call, they reach through and they're not complicated. He only says he's a businessman who likes Trump.

"National politics will be an amazingly strong component that will creep into every public entity, from national elections down to small councils and school board races," Cross said.

As for Gov. Edwards, Cross believes he should make a stronger push on the surplus, the fallout from the Jindal Administration, his anti-abortion stand, and support of the Second Amendment.

The push on accomplishments would help, but turnout will remain the key, he said.

"My sense is that the closer you get toward Christmas, the less attention people play to politics," Cross said. "It's just my gut feeling that we will see a falloff to about 40 percent or maybe even less.

"We had a long ballot on Oct. 12, but take those items off the ballot and you take away their reasons for voting," he said.