The LSU Tigers beat the Florida Gators. Ralph Abraham was vanquished, and despite a better-than-expected showing in both East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes, John Bel Edwards was unable to secure an outright win in yesterday’s jungle primary. The incumbent governor finished three points short of the magic number and will face Republican Party mega-donor and political insider Eddie Rispone in a runoff election on Nov. 16th.
As expected, Edwards dominated the six-person field but stopped short of an outright victory, which is at least partially attributable to anemic turnout (38.4%) in the Democrat-heavy Orleans Parish, which had been rattled earlier in the day after a skyscraper hotel under construction suddenly collapsed, killing at least two (as of this writing, one person remains missing) and leaving a field of dust and debris in the heart of downtown New Orleans.
Edwards had been scheduled to appear at a campaign event in New Orleans shortly after the building’s collapse; instead of campaigning, he spent much of the mid-morning coordinating with first responders. By comparison, turnout in East Baton Rouge Parish had been ten points higher.
As election returns began pouring in, Rispone quickly grabbed onto second place against Abraham and narrowly held on for the remainder of the night, ultimately finishing ahead by three points (or approximately 51,000 votes).
According to campaign finance reports, Rispone spent at least $8 million of his own money on the campaign, and his close friend Lane Grigsby likely spent millions as well, blanketing urban radio stations across the state with ads supporting the candidacy of Omar Dantzler, an African American school bus driver from Hammond whose campaign was otherwise nonexistent. Because candidates appear on the ballot in alphabetical order, Dantzler was the first Democratic candidate listed.
Rispone, a first-time candidate, had not been widely known until this year’s election, though he has been a powerful political insider and prolific donor to conservative candidates and organizations for more than twenty years. Since 1998, Rispone has contributed more than $1.6 million to influence elections, and during the Jindal administration, he championed a tax loophole that treated his donations to a Catholic voucher school as if they were state income taxes.
To most, Rispone’s ascendance into second place would have seemed improbable when he announced his candidacy shortly after Labor Day last year, but for a small cabal of wealthy construction magnates and political insiders, the most surprising aspect of the jungle primary was how Ralph Abraham had managed to hang on until the very end.
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There have been eleven jungle primaries for Louisiana governor since its debut during Edwin Edwards’ first term in office. Edwards is still the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate to win outright in the jungle primary, when he ran for reelection in 1975, and only Bobby Jindal has won election and reelection without a runoff. Mike Foster had also managed to win outright during his reelection in 1999.
It’s an unwieldy and unpredictable system, and because Edwin Edwards remained such a singular force in Louisiana politics for more than 30 years, any political science on the subject has to consider the Edwin factor. That said, in other races, it’s not unusual for a Democratic incumbent to fall short in the jungle and win in the runoff. It happened to John Breaux, and Mary Landrieu won two of her three elections to the Senate outright. She beat John Kennedy in the jungle primary in 2008.
By the time Donald Trump strode into an arena in Lake Charles on Friday night, packed to the brim with 7,500 red hats, nearly a quarter of votes had already been cast. At the same time the MAGA crowd were being whipped into a frenzy, Edwards was holding a tele-town hall. 16,000 people dialed in, more than double the number that attended Trump’s rally and the most-ever for an event of its kind.
It had appeared, albeit briefly, that Edwards may have taken the whole election in the jungle primary, but the Republican Governor’s Association and Lane Grigsby both decided to air the attack ads they had hoped to hold until a runoff, just to stem the tide and buy some time.
It ended up working, barely. Edwards’ 47% share is in line with what polls had been suggesting all along. This morning, Trump boasted that his appearance in Lake Charles had resulted in Edwards plunging from 66% to 47%; it was utterly divorced from reality.
While it’s undeniably true that Trump remains popular in Louisiana, when you’re only looking at his approval rating, you’re missing the more significant number: Net approval over time, and it ain’t good for the Donald.
It remains to be seen how Rispone and his allies will proceed during the next month; the decision to preemptively strike with their attack ads leaves them without any fresh material during the runoff, and Rispone still has to introduce himself. More than 70% of voters supported someone else, and simply affixing himself to Trump’s brand allows his opponents to reinforce the notion that he is phony, an empty suit who has emptied his pockets to purchase the governor’s office for himself and his wealthy friends.
One thing is for certain: We’re in for a wild month.