BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ quest for a second term as the Deep South’s only Democratic governor will stretch over another month, as voters in his crimson state denied him a primary win Saturday and sent him to a runoff election.
The Democratic incumbent was unable to top 50% of the vote in the six-candidate field, raising questions about his reelection chances against a national Republican offensive that includes President Donald Trump. Trump made a last-minute appeal to Louisiana’s voters to reject Edwards.
Edwards will compete in the Nov. 16 runoff against one of two Republican contenders: U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham or businessman Eddie Rispone, who were vying for second place.
Three Republican statewide elected officials on the ballot won reelection to new four-year terms: Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Attorney General Jeff Landry and Treasurer John Schroder. Three other GOP incumbents also were seeking to hold on to their jobs, and voters were deciding four proposed constitutional changes.
Republicans sought to prove that Edwards’ longshot victory in 2015 was a fluke, aided by a flawed GOP opponent, David Vitter, who was hobbled by a prostitution scandal and attacks on his moral character from fellow Republicans in the primary.
Democrats want an Edwards reelection win to show they can compete even in a ruby red state that Trump won by 20 points.
But the 53-year-old Edwards isn’t exactly a Democrat in the national mold.
The West Point graduate and former Army Ranger opposes abortion and gun restrictions, talks of working well with the Trump administration and calls the U.S. House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry a distraction to governing in Washington. He signed one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans.
Throughout his campaign, Edwards sought to make the election a referendum on his performance rather than a commentary on Louisiana views on national politics.
The Democratic incumbent contrasted three recent years of budget surpluses with the deficit-riddled terms of his predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal. Edwards and the majority-GOP state Legislature passed a tax deal that stabilized state finances and allowed for new investments in public colleges and the first statewide teacher raise in a decade.
“When I took office, the state of Louisiana had the largest budget deficit in our history,” Edwards said. “We did the hard, bipartisan work necessary to right the ship, to strengthen our economy.”
Edwards expanded Louisiana’s Medicaid program, adding nearly a half-million new people to government-financed health care and lowering the state’s uninsured rate below the national average. A bipartisan criminal sentencing law rewrite he championed ended Louisiana’s tenure as the nation’s top jailer.
Josh Jansen, voting at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans with his wife and son, cast his ballot for Edwards.
“I just think he’s done a good job. He’s a good mix of Republican and Democrat,” Jansen said. He said he appreciated Edwards’ working across the aisle, which he said is uncommon in U.S. politics these days.
Barbara Bacot, a retired state employee, also voted for Edwards.
“He has done a very good job in the teeth of opposition from people who should know better. You can’t lower taxes and run a good state,” she said at her Baton Rouge polling place.
Republicans panned the governor’s performance, saying Edwards raised taxes too high, stifling economic development and chasing people from Louisiana.
“It’s not a surplus. He overtaxed you. It’s your money,” Abraham said. “We are taxed, taxed, taxed to death.”
The GOP contenders said the Medicaid expansion was rife with abuse, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars. They sought to nationalize the race, tying Edwards to national Democratic leaders, while Abraham and Rispone bickered over which one had tighter ties to Trump.
Abraham, 65, a third-term congressman from rural Richland Parish in northeast Louisiana, touted his background as a doctor. He pledged tax cuts while promising new spending on early childhood education, roads and public safety. He didn’t explain how he would balance the budget with less revenue.
Marie Cavin, an antiques dealer, voted for Abraham, saying she chose him because he was a Republican and she heard good things about him from her co-workers. She didn’t necessarily object to Edwards’ performance, but she described herself as a Trump supporter who didn’t feel comfortable supporting a Democrat.
“I don’t really like what’s going on with the Democrats nationally,” Cavin said. “I just felt like I wanted to get a Republican in there.”
Rispone, 70, founder of a Baton Rouge industrial contracting company, is a long-time GOP political donor running for his first elected office. He largely self-financed his campaign, pouring $11 million in the race. He presented himself in the mold of Trump, describing himself as a conservative outsider who would upend the traditional political system of Baton Rouge.
“We need a CEO, someone with serious business experience,” Rispone told supporters. “Both sides of the aisle have failed you. It’s time to do something different.”
Voter Barbie Edwards said she supported Rispone when she cast her early vote in the New Orleans area.
“He’s a good businessman. He’d be a good businessman for the state like Trump is for the country,” she said.
Neither GOP candidate was among the top-tier contenders Republicans had hoped would get in the race. But other, more well-known possibilities passed. With Republicans unable to rally behind one clear choice, they worried that fighting between Abraham and Rispone risked helping Edwards to victory.
In the final week of the campaign, GOP groups reminded voters of Edwards’ former deputy chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, who resigned in 2017 amid allegations of sexual harassment. Anderson’s accuser was prominently featured in one ad, noting that Edwards hired Anderson even though Anderson had previously been accused of sexual misconduct.
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