President Donald Trump traveled to Louisiana Friday for an eleventh-hour mission to stop the state's Democratic governor — one of the few statewide Democrats in the Deep South — from winning a second term.
But unlike his previous election-eve campaign rallies, Trump wasn't stumping for a specific Republican candidate: In fact, he appeared on stage with two Republicans running bitter campaigns against one another. If that has the makings of an awkward spectacle, blame Louisiana’s open primary system. Candidates from both parties, including incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, are running in Saturday's primary.
If Edwards clears a majority — he’s polling near the 50 percent mark — he wins another term outright. If not, Edwards and one of the two Republicans on stage with Trump will face off a month later in a general election.
"Tomorrow, you will head to the polls, and you will vote to replace a liberal Democrat who has sold you out — John Bel Edwards — with a great, new Republican governor," said Trump, adding that, if Edwards "doesn't get 50 percent, then one of our two great candidates will win" the runoff.
The two GOP candidates, Rep. Ralph Abraham and self-funding businessman Eddie Rispone, are competing for second place and a one-on-one shot at Edwards in a runoff if the incumbent comes up short of the 50 percent threshold. Republicans believe they will hold Edwards shy of a majority — and that they would have an advantage over Edwards in a runoff.
But in the meanwhile, the two Republicans are attacking one another, jockeying for that second-place slot. In the final week, Rispone launched two new attack ads against Abraham hitting his congressional attendance recordand painting him as insufficiently supportive of Trump's 2016 candidacy. Abraham, meanwhile, has been airing an ad telling voters, "Eddie Rispone has been lying to you."
Both men briefly addressed the crowd in Lake Charles after Trump — who repeatedly called them "our guys" — said they could have the microphone as long as they didn't attack each other from the stage.
Privately, Democrats are hoping that Edwards will win outright. Most public and private polling conducted by allies of the various campaigns has shown Edwards falling just short of the 50 percent he needs to clinch reelection outright. But the party is publicly cautious about the possibility of a runoff and expressing optimism that Edwards can win a head-to-head matchup with one of the Republicans.
"It's always hard to avoid a runoff in a multi-candidate race," said Democratic strategist Scott Arceneaux, a former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. "Even with an incumbent. The math is difficult. In Louisiana, you have all these other candidates on the ballot that are going to get between 2 or 3 percent that essentially take up space. It's hard, and I think John Bel has done an excellent job of keeping us in a position where he can certainly get there on Saturday. It's one where he's definitely in the game, and I think it's where he could go 51 [percent] or 49."
In their effort to keep Edwards under 50 percent, Republicans have focused their attacks on Edwards' handling of a sexual harassment complaint directed at his former deputy chief of staff, Johnny Anderson. Both the Republican Governors Association and a Republican-funded outside group, Truth in Politics, have aired ads criticizing Edwards for hiring Anderson, who had been accused of harassment in a previous job, and not moving swiftly enough to oust him.
In response, the Edwards campaign recently released its own ad featuring women, speaking directly into the camera, defending Edwards' record on women.
Republicans say the late push — including visits from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr. — has momentum on the GOP's side.
"We're definitely looking at a runoff from our end," said Andrew Bautsch, the executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party. "And that puts the governor in a bad spot from our end because if you look at it, an incumbent has never won going into a runoff in the state of Louisiana."
In fact, Bautsch predicted that, despite polling showing Edwards nearing a majority, he will come up well short. "We think he's going to be way under the 50 percent mark," Bautsch said. "As of right now our goal is to rally our troops, which we're doing with the president coming in, which we've done all week with the various rallies."
Edwards, an anti-abortion Democrat who has avoided associating too closely with the national Democratic Party, has spent competitively in the race. His campaign has spent over $8 million on advertising, while Gumbo PAC, an allied super PAC, has spent nearly $6 million against the two Republicans.
Meanwhile, Rispone has contributed more than $11 million of his own money to his campaign. That has given him a massive advantage on the airwaves over Abraham, spending about $8 million on advertising, compared with Abraham's nearly $2 million. RGA Right Direction PAC, the RGA-aligned affiliate in the state, has spent $4.5 million to keep Republicans on the offensive against Edwards.
Republicans are buoyed by encouraging numbers in early voting, with turnout up among GOP voters and down among black voters, a key bloc for Edwards. James Hartman, a Louisiana-based Republican consultant, predicted that if there is a runoff, the margin between Abraham and Rispone — who are running close in the polls — could be very small.
“I think it could be a very tight race for second place. I think it is theoretically possible that the governor wins reelection [Saturday],” Hartman said, pointing out that Edwards has taken pains not to alienate some conservative voters in the state through a strict anti-abortion bill.
Also complicating the turnout picture on an autumn weekend: football. Friday night's Trump rally comes as high schools take the field across much of the state. Then, on Saturday, Louisiana State is hosting Florida in a prime-time matchup between top-10-ranked teams, and ESPN's block party-style pregame show, "College GameDay," is coming to Baton Rouge on Saturday morning.
Trump mentioned the big Southeastern Conference clash at the top of his speech.
"I want you to enjoy the game, but I don’t really want you to enjoy the game if you don’t vote first," he said. "You know why? Because you’ll be sitting there watching some incredible football, and you’ll feel guilty. It will ruin your entire afternoon."
Arceneaux, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party, said he'll be watching the turnout numbers Saturday night to see if Democrats got their voters out to beat back Republicans' closing barrage.
"If African American turnout is high — if the base community is turning out — then he's got a real shot at [winning outright]," Arceneaux said. "That'll be the biggest indicator."