Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards won reelection Saturday, the second gubernatorial victory for Democrats in a red state this month.
Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, narrowly defeated Republican Eddie Rispone, 51 percent to 49 percent, according to The Associated Press. His victory came despite President Donald Trump traveling to the state twice over the final 11 days of the race to campaign for Rispone, a businessman who mostly self-funded his campaign.
Edwards' win gives Democrats victories in two of the three contests for governor this year: Louisiana and Kentucky. Republicans retained control of the Governor's Mansion in Mississippi.
"Our shared love for Louisiana is always more important than the partisan differences that sometimes divide us," Edwards said in his victory speech Saturday night, alluding to the national GOP forces that opposed him. "And as for the president, God bless his heart."
Edwards framed his profile as a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat who keeps the liberal wing of his party at arm's length. Rispone, meanwhile, was banking on a late-game cash infusion from the Republican National Committee plus two visits from Trump in the past two weeks would carry him to the Governor's Mansion.
Trump warned Louisiana voters that a defeat of the Republican candidate would reflect poorly on him. At a there rally this week, he told supporters, "You got to give me a big win, please, OK?"
A Rispone victory would have redeemed 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 a runoff.
But it was Edwards who prevailed in the runoff, thanks to big margins and high turnout in and around the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, in addition to the peeling off some Abraham voters in his congressional district.
The five-week sprint to the general election was ugly and expensive. According to Advertising Analytics, Rispone's campaign spent $4.8 million since the primary and was bolstered by a number of Republican outside groups that brought overall GOP ad spending to over $10 million. Edwards' reelection campaign spent $4.6 million — and, including outside groups, the effort to reelect him spent over $9 million.
The polls — which suggested Saturday's election would be a nail-biter — were mostly on the mark. A Mason-Dixon poll released earlier this week showed Edwards just 2 percentage points in front of Rispone, well within the margin of error.
The Rispone campaign 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 a 30-second ad.
The Edwards campaign 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 and arguing that Rispone would have returned the state to the days of his predecessor, unpopular former Gov. Bobby Jindal. Edwards also campaigned on criminal justice reforms and Medicaid expansion.
At the same time, Edwards didn't shy 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.
Edwards also nodded to the state's other pastime on autumn Saturdays: Louisiana State University football. He spoke to the top-ranked Tigers team before their showdown last week with then-No. 2 University of 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 emphasized turning out black voters. Scott Arceneaux, a veteran Democratic strategist who has worked in Louisiana and Florida and advised former Tallahassee, Fla., 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 showed 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. Trump tweeted shortly after 5 p.m. CST that voters still three hours to get out and vote for Rispone, saying his election would bring "lower taxes and much more!"
Edwards, on the other hand, was always eager to draw contrasts with the polarized politics in Washington.
“If this campaign has taught us anything, it’s that the partisan forces in Washington, D.C., are not strong enough to break through the bonds that we share as Louisianans," Edwards said.
National Democrats celebrated Saturday night and touted Edwards' victory in a state Trump carried by 20 percentage points in 2016 as evidence the party isn't ceding territory to the GOP.
"Just like Gov.-Elect Andy Beshear’s victory in Kentucky, Gov. Edwards’ win proves that strong Democrats can be competitive anywhere in the country — in red, blue, and purple states," said Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the Republican candidate.