Voters head to the polls in critical Louisiana gubernatorial race

Voters are heading to the polls Saturday to vote in Louisiana’s crucial gubernatorial race as both Democrats and Republicans go all in to push their candidate over the finish line.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, the sole Democratic governor in a Deep South state, is facing off against wealthy Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, a first-time candidate who has already thrown $12 million of his own money into his campaign. Signs point to a nail-biter Saturday, with two polls this week showing Edwards with just a 2-point lead, well within the margin of error.

Edwards led the jungle primary voting in October but was forced into a November runoff race when he failed to secure at least 50 percent of the vote. Rispone finished in second with 27 percent, splitting the GOP vote with Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.). 

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Early voting in the state this week reached a record volume in a nonpresidential year as the contest rises in statewide and national prominence. In a positive sign for Edwards, black voters made up approximately 31 percent of all those who cast their ballots early, a roughly 6-point bump from the share of black voters in the first round of balloting last month.

“There are just very few black voters who are going to support a Republican, and particularly this Republican who is aligning himself so much with Donald Trump,” Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told The Hill this week. “A black voter who is motivated to go vote is a vote for John Bel Edwards.”

Early voting results also showed that Democrats made up a larger share of the electorate than in the first round of balloting.

Both sides have doubled down on their efforts in the race, the results of which could be a signal as to how competitive Democrats can remain in increasingly conservative states.

While the Democratic National Committee has publicly kept itself at arm’s length from Edwards, wary of nationalizing a race in a heavily Republican state, the Democratic Governors Association went on a social media spree late this week to help buoy the incumbent.

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.@EddieRispone’s policy ideas – or lack thereof — would bring Louisiana back into the Jindal days of $2 billion deficits and massive education cuts,” the group tweeted Thursday, referring to Edwards’s predecessor, former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). “Thanks to #LAGov @JohnBelForLA, Louisiana is moving forward.” 

For their part, Republicans have opened up the coffers for Rispone as they work to unseat Edwards. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has poured more than $1 million into late get-out-the-vote efforts, doubling its previous investment. The committee also sent 60 paid staffers to Louisiana. 

Meanwhile, the race has emerged as a referendum on President TrumpDonald John TrumpLawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space-Force deal House Democrats expected to unveil articles of impeachment Tuesday Houston police chief excoriates McConnell, Cornyn and Cruz on gun violence MORE’s sway after he held three rallies for Rispone. The president most recently traveled to Bossier City in northwest Louisiana for a get-out-the-vote rally at a 14,000-seat arena, where he explicitly tied his clout to the race’s outcome. 

“You got to give me a big win, please, OK,” the president told supporters.

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“Good morning Louisiana! Polls are open at 7AM. Get out and VOTE for @EddieRispone to be your next Gov! He will get your taxes and auto insurance (highest in Country!) way down. Loves our Military & Vets. Will protect your 2A,” he added in a Saturday morning tweet.

Trump’s involvement in the race has been the focus of heightened scrutiny after Republican Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky lost his reelection bid this month despite a last-ditch effort from Trump to boost one of the nation’s most unpopular governors

Trump’s campaign was quick to distance itself from Bevin after his defeat, saying the president “dragged” him across the finish line to help him “run stronger than expected.”