The ultimate Louisiana gubernatorial voting guide
September 25, 2019
Julia Prager-Hessel worked for MSNBC this summer in the breaking news political unit.
The political climate on Tulane’s campus is largely the result of rumor and generalized personality traits. You’re probably familiar with the stereotypes. Those in the business school are more conservative, those in liberal arts are liberal, and those in architecture and science and engineering are too busy to think about it.
As a school consisting largely of students from New York, California and “Chicago,” the upcoming election for Governor of Louisiana may not have had a pervasive presence in the general student psyche. The election is in two weeks, so here’s what you may have missed.
The incumbent governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, succeeded Bobby Jindal in 2015 to break the Republican trifecta in the state. Edwards is a lawyer and an army veteran who previously held a seat in the Louisiana State Legislature.
The other two serious contenders, based on polling numbers and money raised, are Republicans Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone.
Abraham is a current U.S. representative from Louisiana, former National Guard and Coast Guard veteran, doctor and veterinarian.
Rispone, who has never held political office but is the founder of ISC Constructors, has a similar platform to President Donald Trump’s. He is running as a businessman and a “conservative outsider,” aligning himself closely with the values of the president.
The jungle primary
Though Louisiana is a deeply red state that voted for President Trump by 20 points in 2016, the gubernatorial election is conducted as a “jungle primary,” a system unique to Louisiana. In this primary, all candidates, regardless of party, run against each other.
If one candidate emerges with upwards of 50% of the vote, that candidate will be elected, and there will be no further contest. If no candidate reaches that threshold, another election will be held between the top two finishers in the primary.
The danger for Republicans, in a state as red as Louisiana, is that the conservative candidates will split the Republican vote and the most popular Democrat will emerge victorious. That, in fact, is exactly how Edwards emerged victorious in the last cycle, making him the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.
In 2015 the Republican contenders — then-Sen. David Vitter, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne — essentially counted Edwards out, doubting a Democrat could pull out a victory in red Louisiana. They aired attack ads against each other, split Republican funding and support and ultimately did enough damage to each other that Edwards slid into the first runoff spot with Vitter limping in after him.
The hits Vitter had already taken coupled with an uncovered prostitution scandal allowed Edwards to win by 10%. It seems that, four years later, the Grand Old Party is making the same mistake again. On Sept. 17, 2019, Eddie Rispone launched an opposition TV advertisement campaign against Abraham, his fellow Republican.
Two polls in the state show that Edwards will place atop the primary election but earn less than 50% of the total vote. In potential matchups, two state polls each have Edwards either tying Abraham or beating him by 4% and show Edwards beating Rispone by 5% and 11%, respectively.
Despite the seemingly failed strategic efforts of the GOP, it remains important to point out the policies on which the candidates are running.
Regarding the social issues that have dominated national attention, all three candidates hold the traditionally conservative opinions on supporting the Second Amendment and opposing abortion. At the debate between the three candidates on Sept. 19, Edwards, a Catholic Democrat, defended his history of pro-life legislation. He pointed to his recent signing of a statewide bill to ban abortions after a heartbeat can be detected in the fetus, a milestone that often comes six-weeks into a pregnancy, and does not include an exception for rape or incest. Though Edwards said he could support background checks for gun sales at commercial venues, all three were unwilling to support a law enforcing universal background checks.
All three candidates have acknowledged the existence of climate change, but all have also indicated support for the oil and gas industry. Edwards, in his first term, received unanimous approval from the state legislature for his Coastal Master Plan, which calls for $50 billion over the next 50 years to protect the coast.
He has yet to invest in any measure to prevent the onslaught of the climate crisis that has dominated national attention and taken over news-cycles surrounding the presidential Democratic primary, however. This effort, therefore, probably says more about his ability to work across the aisle than his tendencies toward combating climate change.
Though all candidates support economic growth, their proposals to get there differ. Edwards, on his website and in his stump speeches, touts Louisiana’s having gone from a budget deficit to budget surplus during his tenure, and promises to continue growth. Abraham takes the traditional conservative approach and promises to lower taxes and reduce the size of government, and Rispone boasts that, as a businessman, he has created 3,000 jobs already.
The main differences between the candidates lie in two distinct areas: Louisiana education and immigration rhetoric.
Louisiana’s education system has undergone enormous change in the last decade, and the system is still changing. Currently, Louisiana public schools are ranked 48th in the country, and it is clear that comprehensive reform and extensive support for education is needed at an executive level, which Edwards is prepared to provide.
In his first term, he gave teachers a raise for the first time in a decade and invested $20 million into early childhood education, an effort he says he is prepared to continue in a second term. Neither Rispone nor Abraham have any plans on their campaign websites to address education, and if Rispone is to mimic the agenda of his president as closely as he says, it is likely that adequately funding public education will not be a top item on his to-do list.
Possibly the only directly partisan split between Edwards and his Republican rivals is on the issue of immigration. Rispone, in a September TV ad, complained of “liberal lunatics” and says that he stands “with President Trump on immigration. The media says that’s racist — what a bunch of politically correct nonsense.”
Abraham, the other GOP candidate, has made statements about building Trump’s wall and commended a local sheriff’s decision to check the citizenship of those booked in the parish jail. Because Trump carried the state by such a large margin in 2016, it is only reasonable to assume that these GOP candidates are trying to out-Trump each other in an effort to win over the state’s conservatives who so strongly supported the president. In every single ad that Rispone has aired, for example, he has mentioned that he has supported Trump against Hillary in various ways, including having a Trump bumper-sticker on his truck.
Though Edwards has not commented as extensively on immigration as Abraham and Rispone have, he did call Trump’s attack on the four Democratic congresswomen known as “the Squad” earlier this summer “out of bounds,” and likening them to insults hurled at African Americans during the Civil Rights era in the South.
Who should I vote for?
As governor, policies matter, but so does persona. Edwards is known for his ability to work across party lines with Republicans in Louisiana legislative seats and was himself minority leader in the Louisiana House before running for governor.
He is a right-leaning Democrat with enough political experience to have a clear handle on his role, but he is not so engrossed in the political process that cannot still understand what it is like to be a Louisianan. He is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South and the only Democratic politician in Louisiana to win a state-wide election, though he is also one of the Deep South democrats to veer into classically conservative territory when it comes to hot-button social issues like reproductive rights and gun control.
Though both GOP candidates stand strongly with Trump, Abraham’s campaign message is slightly more nuanced. He currently sits in a U.S. House of Representatives with a Democratic majority, which has forced him to work across party lines, and he has discussed state-level issues like Medicaid and the oil and gas industry throughout his campaign. Despite having experience at the national political level, Abraham also has a sky-high absence rate in Congressional votes. In fact, he is the most absent member of Congress this session.
Rispone, on the other hand, has little to no political experience and seems to be riding solely on his support and admiration for the president. Just because someone admires a politician does not mean they are qualified to become one, no matter how much money they can loan to their own campaign. In the case of Rispone, that figure comes out to $11.5 million. For context, this is only $300,000 less than Kamala Harris fundraised in one quarter in her national primary bid for president.
Overall, if you are looking for a Democrat who supports nationally liberal policies and is in line with priorities similar to Democrats on the national stage, you are in the wrong state.
If you are looking for a Trump groupie-turned-politician looking to preserve the Second Amendment, limit reproductive rights, loosely acknowledge climate change and spread a businessman’s attitude and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House to Baton Rouge, vote for Rispone.
If you are looking for a candidate with policies similar to Rispone who has relevant political experience and a more nuanced approach to state-wide politics, vote for Abraham.
If you are looking for a candidate that is socially conservative about gun reform and reproductive rights and a little bit quieter about immigration and climate change but who has and will invest in teachers and work across the aisle, vote for John Bel Edwards.
Mostly, make sure to vote on Oct. 12. Any registered resident of Louisiana can.