Late last night, 84-year-old Raymond “Coach” Blanco arrived at the Renaissance Hotel in Baton Rouge, a building that originally served as the dormitories for Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, to personally congratulate John Bel Edwards for securing a second term as state’s chief executive. “She’s looking down on us right now,” Blanco said as his grandson steered his wheelchair into the packed hotel. He tilted his head upward.
He was beaming with pride, but the moment was bittersweet. Three months ago, his wife, former Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, died after a protracted battle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Only days before she passed away, in what would be her final public act, Kathleen Blanco became the first person to officially endorse John Bel Edwards for a second term.
“She’s here with us tonight,” Coach Blanco said.
Although Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report was the first to officially call the election for Edwards at 9:37PM, it became clear almost immediately after results began trickling in that his opponent, Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, was going to fall short, even if he had appeared to be leading early on.
At 9:15PM, I tweeted, “At this point, I don’t see any pathway for Rispone to win. There seems to be a ton of more votes left in heavily Democratic areas than in Republican areas of the state.” I wasn’t being clairvoyant. Orleans Parish had yet to report a single vote, and Rispone had been failing to hit his targets in far too many parishes, while Edwards was exceeding his goals.
Ultimately, Edwards bested Rispone by 40,341 votes, and while he only carried 24 of the state’s 64 parishes, Edwards piled up huge margins in the state’s most populated areas, easily winning in Shreveport, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and suburban Jefferson Parish. Edwards’ victory is largely attributable to a major surge among African American voters, who supported the incumbent by a 95% margin and who comprised a total of 30.3% of the electorate.
As a consequence, John Bel Edwards became the first Democrat to win a second consecutive term since Edwin Edwards defeated state Sen. Bob Jones and Secretary of State Wade O. Martin, Jr. in 1975. (Edwin Edwards, who is not related to John Bel Edwards, was subsequently elected to two other, non-consecutive terms, making him the first and only four-term governor in Louisiana history).
Rispone called to concede the election at 9:51PM, telling Edwards he would help him steer Louisiana in the right direction.
“Well Eddie, I would tell you we got it moving the right direction,” Edwards said, “and we’re going to keep it moving in the right direction. But I appreciate the phone call.”
Only five weeks ago, after failing to secure more than 50% of the vote in the state’s jungle primary, Edwards had appeared to be in real peril of losing the runoff to Rispone, a political neophyte who had spent nearly $14 million of his own fortune on a campaign that had defined itself with appeals to supporters of President Donald Trump. Although polls consistently showed Edwards with a narrow advantage (only two polls ever had Rispone leading), political oddsmakers had initially given Rispone a 2-to-1 advantage. In 2016, Trump carried Louisiana by nearly 20 points, and when Rispone’s votes in the primary were added to the votes received by the third-place finisher, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the two Republicans combined for more than half of all votes cast.
Rispone’s prospects had also appeared- at least initially- to be improved by Trump’s decision to spend significant political capital on the campaign. He visited Louisiana three times during the campaign, holding large rallies in Lake Charles, Monroe, and Bossier City. Trump also dispatched his son, Donald, Jr., for a visit in Lafayette and his running mate, Vice President Mike Pence, for two stops in Baton Rouge. Rispone, for his part, had introduced himself to voters in a television commercial that boasted about the Trump bumper sticker on his pickup truck. In the runoff campaign, Rispone didn’t even appear in the first pair of commercials his campaign aired; instead, they exclusively featured footage of Trump criticizing John Bel Edwards at the rally he hosted in Lake Charles.
But Rispone’s campaign was ultimately undone by a confluence of factors, many of which were of his own making. Bafflingly, he spent the first two weeks of the runoff completely off of the campaign trail. He agreed to participate in only one televised debate, snubbing invitations to participate in multiple candidate forums across the state, including at least one high-profile event hosted by the conservative-friendly Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce.
To be sure, it wasn’t until Democrat Andy Beshear scored a surprising victory over incumbent Republican Matt Bevin in the Nov. 5th contest for Kentucky governor that oddsmakers began giving Edwards a clear advantage over Rispone, though the national narrative lagged behind what had already become increasingly clear to those on the ground in Louisiana. (Incidentally, because of Edwards’ win, for the first time since 1995, Kentucky and Louisiana both have governors who are members of the same political party).
If there is a single moment that tilted the election back toward Edwards and diminished Rispone’s chances for victory, it wasn’t anything that happened in Kentucky, and it had nothing to do with what Donald Trump said or tweeted. It was, instead, a comment made by Lane Grigsby, Rispone’s “political mentor” and a man who had spent millions of his own dollars to fund a series of attack ads against John Bel Edwards. When it had appeared as if a mistake by the Secretary of State would result in an unusual three-person runoff election for a state Senate seat, Grigsby brazenly offered one of the two Republican candidates a pledge to support a future run for a judicial seat if he dropped out of the race. His proposal appeared to be illegal, and, at the very least, it was clearly unethical.
Grigsby suddenly found himself the subject of bipartisan criticism, and when a reporter for the Baton Rouge Business Report asked him for comment, he gloated, “I’m the kingmaker. I talk from the throne.” Grigsby’s comments seemed to confirm what many had long suspected, that he believed he could simply purchase control of state government. Rispone, who had only decided to run for governor after he and Grigsby spent two years attempting to recruit someone to challenge Edwards, had been made to look like a corruptible bit player, a characterization he hadn’t done much to refute by defining himself as merely an extension of Donald Trump, not as his own man.
The admission played directly into the narrative that Trey Ourso of GumboPAC had brilliantly crafted during the primary: Rispone was a phony.
The Rispone campaign did nothing to disabuse that characterization; if anything, they enabled it. Grigsby seemed to confirm it.
But elections are determined and defined by a narrative (and the whims and the mood of the public) as much as they are by the mechanics of turning out voters. To that end, while some may look to the ill will that Rispone generated when he attacked Ralph Abraham during the primary, which was arguably the reason he underperformed in parishes Abraham had dominated, it’s likely Rispone would have never even made it into the runoff if he hadn’t criticized Abraham. (In 2015, David Vitter confronted a similar predicament after his campaign decided to invest heavily in attack ads against two other Republican candidates, Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne. His campaign believes Vitter wouldn’t have narrowly made it into the runoff if they had played nice, but the attacks came at a cost during the runoff. Dardenne endorsed John Bel Edwards, and Angelle stayed out of the race completely).
The simple explanation for Edwards’ victory is that African Americans and women, the two core constituencies of the Democratic Party, showed up. We’ll unpack the reasons why the runoff was dramatically different than the jungle primary in a few days, but for now, perhaps the most instructive illustration of last night’s election is this comparison that J. Miles Coleman put together.
“Overall, Edwards’ margin last night was similar to the late Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s win 2003,” he tweeted. “(B)ut looking back at that race shows you how much the state changed. (Edwards) improved in the between New Orleans/Baton Rouge metros, as most everything else got more (Republican).”