“The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”

Adlai Stevenson

Elections, especially big elections, often hinge on how effective a candidate’s turnout operation is, but to move people to the polls, you also need to be able to tell the more compelling and credible story. In a recent report in the Bayou Brief about this year’s gubernatorial election, Lynda Woolard details how a broad and diverse coalition of grassroots organizations came together after the jungle primary and catapulted John Bel Edwards into a second term.

This is about the other aspect that guaranteed the governor’s success: The ways in which his campaign and a network of like-minded allies, led by Trey Ourso’s GumboPAC, were able to defuse the biggest weapon in the Republican Party’s arsenal- Donald J. Trump- and consistently control and ultimately win the messaging war.

So how, exactly, did John Bel Edwards’ message succeed in a red state in the Deep South, where so many other Democratic candidates have failed? And what difference, really, did Donald Trump end up making?

If you listen only to the national media, you may be under the impression that this year’s election in Louisiana was, like almost everything else in the news, all about Trump. For the second time in a month, he had invested his political capital in support of a losing Republican gubernatorial candidate in a ruby red state, and this, we were told, was a sign that Trump has lost some of his luster in the very places he had dominated only three years ago.

GumboPAC’s Trey Ourso (left) celebrates with a colleague while former U.S. Sen. John Breaux and Gov. John Bel Edwards await the results of the runoff election at the Edwards campaign “war room” in Baton Rouge’s Renaissance Hotel. Photo credit: Lynda Woolard.

“… and as for the President, God bless his heart.”

John Bel Edwards

The Long Shot Becomes the Frontrunner

According to people close to the governor, Trump’s decision to wade into this year’s election in Louisiana caught him by surprise and was tremendously disappointing. Edwards had spent three years cultivating a good working relationship with the president, who had once told him that he was his “favorite Democrat.” When Trump hosted French President Emmanuel Macron for his very first state dinner at the White House, only one Democrat made the cut, the governor of Louisiana.

As a result, John Bel Edwards was a rare, if not singular, figure in American politics: An elected Democrat well-liked by a Republican president who didn’t get along with anyone. Indeed, at some point early this year, several people in Edwards’ inner circle believed Trump had been persuaded to remain neutral.

No doubt, there were obvious political reasons for Edwards to keep the president in his good graces. Donald Trump had carried Louisiana by nearly twenty points in 2016, and the state’s electorate had been tilting conservative for most of the past decade. Four years ago, when Edwards defied the odds and won resoundingly against David Vitter, Democratic candidates running statewide had lost fourteen consecutive elections, and until his reelection earlier this month, no other Democrat had won a statewide election since then.

Truth be told, the entire 2015 campaign season was much more entertaining than it was this year.

There were prostitutes, patriots, and one pathetic private eye who- only a couple of days before the jungle primary- blew his cover while eavesdropping on- of all people- the sheriff of Jefferson Parish at a popular local coffee shop in Metairie. The spy, who worked for Vitter, attempted to flee from law enforcement on foot, abandoning his rental car and a trove of documents he left on the passenger seat. At some point, during the pursuit, he had to dart across the backyards and jump over the fences of homes in an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood, drawing immediate comparisons to a scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” When the police finally apprehended him, the man- a resident of Dallas- “sang like a canary.”

The consensus view of the political and media establishment- at least initially- was that David Vitter would inevitably be the winner, despite the credible campaigns of two other Republicans and Edwards, the previously obscure state representative from Amite who had successfully cleared the field as the lone Democrat. The first round of polls showed Vitter with a commanding lead. But Edwards had been running much stronger than most anticipated, and Vitter decided to run much uglier- against his fellow Republicans- than anyone other than his small cadre of loyal, long-time staff thought necessary.

On Election Day, Vitter, literally, got into a car wreck. Thankfully, no one got hurt, but a perfect metaphor had materialized. Vitter’s driver worked for the political action committee supporting his campaign; by law, they were prohibited from coordinating with each other. So there was that too.

Political reporters Tyler Bridges and Jeremy Alford collaborated on a definitive book about the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial election; they titled it “Long Shot,” which is how many had first described Edwards’ chances of victory.

But if John Bel Edwards was the long shot in 2015, four years later, he was the frontrunner.

Several White House aides were perplexed by Donald Trump’s decision to campaign in Louisiana this year, believing it was much riskier for the president than he had been led to believe. While a narrow majority of the state’s voters continue to approve of Trump’s job performance, they also give Edwards higher numbers than anyone else. According to Bryan Reed, campaign manager for Eddie Rispone, their internal polling showed Edwards with a 60% job approval at the beginning of the campaign season; by Election Day, that number had dipped down to 56%, which is still higher than Trump’s. Shortly after Edwards won reelection, the New York Times reported that the state’s congressional leaders blamed one of their own for misleading the president.

“In Congress, Louisiana lawmakers and their aides grumbled that Mr. Trump was not being shown quality polling indicating how formidable Mr. Edwards was with Republican-leaning voters,” the Times reported. “And some in the delegation pointed a finger at Louisiana’s voluble junior senator, John Kennedy, who has become a close White House ally, for pushing the president to campaign in the state.”

Notably, John Neely Kennedy, who had publicly flirted with a run for governor and who some believe could have been a formidable opponent, is viewed favorably by only 46% of voters, according to the most recent polling by Morning Consult.

The state’s reliably quotable junior senator has generated national attention for recycling a list of playful idioms and turns of phrases, which has occasionally earned Trump’s attention and amusement, but when addressing his constituents back home, Kennedy frequently attempts to revise history and obscure the truth about what occurred to Louisiana’s budget during his tenure as State Treasurer and under the direction of former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

For his part, Edwards has maintained strong approval numbers, defying conventional wisdom about the state’s increasingly conservative and polarized electorate, by building a solid record of accomplishments during his first term. Shortly after taking office, Edwards discovered the state’s budget crisis was far worse than anyone had been led to believe. Jindal hadn’t left behind a $1 billion deficit, as had been frequently reported; the real number was actually $2.1 billion. Today, the state is projecting a $500 million budget surplus.

In addition, as a result of Edwards’ decision to accept Medicaid expansion funding that had been available to Louisiana through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act— something he has repeatedly called “the easiest big decision” he has ever had to make, more than 470,000 Louisianians now have health insurance. The expansion, which had been blocked by Jindal as a way of demonstrating his opposition to President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, carried the added benefits of creating thousands of new jobs and providing the state with an additional source of critically-needed revenue. In the past four years, as a consequence, Louisiana hasn’t closed a single rural hospital in the state.

Edwards also successfully pushed through the first teacher pay raise in over a decade and has reprioritized investments in higher education after eight years of neglect and draconian cuts under Jindal, and because of a series of criminal justice reforms that received the support of a broad, bipartisan coalition, Louisiana no longer has the ignoble distinction of being the “prison capital of the world.”

As he prepared the groundwork for his reelection campaign, Edwards’ one and only vulnerability was his party affiliation, something that even Republican leaders privately conceded would not be enough to ensure his defeat. More than anything else, this is why the state’s three leading Republicans- state Attorney General Jeff Landry, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, and U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy- decided to stay put.

It’d be difficult to make a convincing case against an incumbent with such a strong record. However, no one, it seems, bothered to tell Donald Trump.

Sen. John Neely Kennedy speaks at a “Keep America Great” rally in Bossier City two days before the runoff election, as President Donald Trump and Sen. Bill Cassidy look on. Image by the Bayou Brief.

The erector set

For nearly two years, Baton Rouge construction magnates Lane Grigsby and Eddie Rispone had been rifling through their Rolodexes and working the phones. They were on a mission to recruit a Republican who could prevent John Bel Edwards from winning a second term, and with Steve Scalise- their top choice- already signaling he would remain in Congress, they weren’t having much luck.

The two men have been close friends for more than thirty years. Rispone’s brother and business partner Gary even named his son Lane and for a good reason.

In 1988, when Eddie Rispone was approaching forty, Grigsby told him something that would forever alter the course of his life. It was, according to Grigsby, “the best piece of advice I ever gave anyone.” Sue Lincoln of the Bayou Brief first reported the Grigsby-Rispone origin story in March of this year.

Eddie Rispone had spent previous thirteen years working for the construction firm Matthews-McCracken-Rutland (better known as MMR), eventually rising to become a company Vice President. A year before, in 1987, MMR went public, and suddenly, Rispone found himself in possession of nearly 30,000 shares of MMR stock.

As Lincoln explains in her report, the “sanitized” version of the story goes something like this: Eddie Rispone had grown increasingly listless and dissatisfied with his job at MMR; he was in the throes of what some may characterize as a “mid-life crisis” and was eager for a career change. That’s when Lane Grigsby, the founder of Cajun Industries, steps in to counsel his friend.

“Liquidate all your stock,” he told Rispone, “and start your own business.”

Eddie Rispone took the advice, resigning from his job and selling off 27,000 shares of MMR in between the months of April and July of 1988. He would use his new-found wealth to launch his own business, ISC Constructors, a firm that specialized in the same type of construction projects he’d worked on during his career at MMR.

His timing could not have been more fortuitous: Months later, in November of 1988, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted Rispone’s former boss, MMR President James “Pepper” Rutland, and the company’s former Chairman, Robert McCracken, on charges related to bid-rigging the building of the power plant Big Cajun #2 back in 1981. Both men were later convicted, and Rutland, who had recruited Rispone to MMR in 1975, ended up serving six months in prison.

During this year’s gubernatorial election, the story went largely unnoticed, though it was the subject of one of GumboPAC’s final television commercials.

Rispone, of course, would go onto make an enormous fortune with ISC Constructors, which today boasts annual revenue of more than $350 million and employs nearly 2,000 people. Only one construction company in Baton Rouge is larger than ISC: Cajun Industries.

It is unclear what precisely Grigsby and Rispone were looking for when they set out to recruit a candidate to run against John Bel Edwards. According to Tyler Bridges of the Advocate, on Feb. 18, 2018, the two men met for 45 minutes with Congressman Ralph Abraham, who had traveled to Grigsby’s office on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge to pitch them on his intention to run for governor.

“I’m sorry,” Grigsby said after the meeting broke up. “I don’t think Ralph Abramson will ever be governor.” He had confused the congressman’s last name with the name of an outgoing state representative from New Orleans.

Increasingly frustrated with their inability to recruit an acceptable candidate, Rispone began getting restless. They were running out of time, and they didn’t seem to have any options. But shortly after their meeting with Abraham, a sleep-deprived Rispone made a decision: He would run for governor. Later, he claimed that idea came to him through an act of divine intervention; God has told him to become a candidate, he said. Who was he to refuse an order from the Almighty Himself?

Eddie Rispone may have been completely unknown outside of a small group of GOP mega-donors and the Baton Rouge business community, but he was willing to stake a bulk of his own personal fortune on the campaign. All told, he’d eventually spend $15 million of his own money, $5 million more than he intended. Name recognition, though, wouldn’t be a problem. Lane Grigsby, who later became one of Rispone’s biggest liabilities, would fund a series of PACs and dark money groups to handle everything the campaign couldn’t.

The only problem, however, was figuring out his message. Edwards was not a typical Democrat. Among other things, he was an outspoken supporter of the Second Amendment and widely favored by the state’s law enforcement community. He was also staunchly pro-life; earlier this year, he signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, outraging many in the Democratic base. (Edwards may have underestimated the extent to which that affected enthusiasm for his reelection campaign, particularly during the jungle primary. By one estimate, his support among women dropped by five points shortly after he signed the bill into law).

Either way, the typical Republican playbook wasn’t going to work against Edwards; Rispone would need to take a different approach. He quickly assembled an all-star team of national consultants, borrowing heavily from the roster that Donald Trump had put together in 2016. They decided to model their effort after the one used by Bill Lee, the newly-elected Republican governor of Tennessee. Rispone would market himself as a champion of the business community, a social conservative, and a political outsider, just like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

However, from the very beginning, Rispone’s campaign made a tactical error, one that they would continue to make over and over again throughout the election: They emphasized Rispone’s support of Trump more than anything else.

When Rispone rolled out his campaign with a commercial boasting about the Trump bumper sticker on his pick-up truck, internal polling showed he actually lost support because of the ad, a fact that Lionel Rainey III, a top advisor to Ralph Abraham, mentioned at a recent forum hosted by LSU’s Manship School. To be sure, the reason for the botched debut wasn’t merely because of the obsequious references to Trump; it was because Rispone came across as inauthentic and vapid and more than a little smug.

In many respects, in that introductory commercial, Eddie Rispone provided his opponents with the fodder they would successfully use to characterize him for the entire campaign season: Phony Rispone.

But before exploring the behind-the-scenes story of Phony Rispone and the impact it had in this year’s election, we should first consider the most prominent feature of Donald Trump’s role in the race for Louisiana governor: His made-for-TV rallies.

President Donald Trump appears alongside Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” at a campaign rally in Monroe, Louisiana. Image by the Bayou Brief.

Preaching to the Choir

It’s hard to imagine Trump would have ever been elected president without the wall-to-wall coverage of the countless, often erratic, frequently offensive, and usually bombastic campaign rallies he held across the country.

By some estimates, because of the decision by CNN and FoxNews to air the majority of those rallies, front to finish, on national television, the Trump campaign benefitted from more than $3 billion in “earned media” coverage, an unprecedented gift from the corporate media to the self-proclaimed billionaire reality TV star and real estate mogul from New York.

The conventional wisdom, at least initially, was that Trump’s rallies would bolster turnout among Republicans, significantly improving Eddie Rispone’s chances against a popular incumbent. However, by the time the runoff campaign kicked off, it became obvious that Trump’s mere presence in the state had no real impact on the polls.

At a private fundraiser hosted by the legendary political strategist James Carville, Gov. Edwards directly addressed the concern among his supporters about Trump’s upcoming rallies. “There won’t be anyone (at those rallies) who hasn’t already made up their mind,” Edwards argued. “Their support for my opponent is baked-in.”

Indeed, the data suggests Rispone didn’t benefit much at all from Trump’s three rallies in the state. The first rally, which was held in Lake Charles on the eve of the jungle primary, required Trump to awkwardly support both Rispone and the other Republican in the race, Congressman Ralph Abraham, and in any event, it occurred too late to provide anything except for a few scripted attacks against John Bel Edwards that Rispone would later use in his first two commercials of the run-off, both of which didn’t include a single image of the candidate himself.

According to Dr. Mike Henderson, the Director of LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, it’s difficult to gauge whether Trump’s appearance in Lake Charles had much of an effect, but at best, it only resulted in a 2,300 vote increase among Republican voters in Calcasieu Parish.

In his penultimate rally, held during the runoff in Monroe- the capital city of Abraham Country, there was a small uptick the following day in early votes by whites living in Ouachita Parish, which Rispone ultimately carried with 54.5% of the vote. But crucially, when Abraham took the stage that night, he focused entirely on praising Trump and mentioned Rispone only in passing, signaling to many that there was still a rift between the two men, a consequence of Rispone’s decision to launch a series of attack ads against the avuncular country doctor in the waning days of the jungle primary.

(Bryan Reed, Rispone’s campaign manager, later claimed that the decision to launch negative ads against Abraham changed the dynamic of the primary, resulting in Rispone climbing ahead of Abraham and into second place in the polls for the first time ever).

At Trump’s final rally in Bossier City, held only two days before the election, Eddie Rispone seemed like an afterthought, appearing on stage very briefly and looking nervous and out of his element. When Rispone concluded his comments, which were primarily an effusive and fawning love letter to the president, Trump waddled back to the podium and attempted to lock arms with the candidate for a victory salute to the audience. Instead, though, he didn’t manage to catch Rispone’s hand, and when the two men hoisted their arms to the sky, the lasting image was of a bloated and flush-faced Trump flinging Rispone’s arm up into the air by the wrist.

Ostensibly, the rally had been planned to bolster Rispone’s campaign, yet aside from his cameo appearance behind the podium, there was little evidence of any support for the Baton Rouge Republican. No one sported a Rispone t-shirt; no one even held up one of his campaign signs. That night, the CenturyLink Center in Bossier City was a sea of red hats and MAGA gear. While two out of three voters in Bossier Parish, as expected, supported the Republican, John Bel Edwards carried the precinct that had hosted the rally.

As analysis conducted by the nonprofit organization Together Louisiana demonstrates, while turnout increased between the jungle primary and the runoff in most of the state’s urban areas, it actually went down in most of the Republican-heavy rural precincts near Monroe and Lake Charles. In Caddo Parish, John Bel Edwards received 13,000 more votes than Rispone, enough to make up for Rispone’s 12,000 vote margin across the Red River in Bossier.

“The most important role of Trump has less to do with anything he did or said and more to do with the fact that he is a Republican president who is relatively popular in a state that tends to vote for Republicans,” Henderson explained.

“There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan.”

John F. Kennedy

The True story of Phony Rispone

Four years ago, if you were approaching the Superdome from I-10 East, you couldn’t avoid the billboard with the cryptic message, framing the downtown skyline and towering above the interstate directly next to the Jefferson Davis overpass. “ABV,” the sign read in huge yellow letters. There was a website address listed underneath, but depending on how fast you were driving, you easily could have missed it and wondered whether the sign was a reference to a new brand of beer (“ABV,” after all, is the acronym for “Alcohol by Volume”) or maybe an airport (but why would there be a billboard advertising the code for the airport in Abuja, Nigeria?).

If you were a tourist visiting New Orleans and not well-versed in Louisiana politics, chances are you would still be confused, even if you had managed to read the name of the website: www.AnybodyButVitter.com.

GumboPAC’s ABV billboard in New Orleans.

The billboard, which went up in early June of 2015, introduced New Orleans to a brand-new political action committee, GumboPAC, and Vitter, as anyone from Louisiana could tell you, referred to the state’s junior United States Senator, David Bruce Vitter, who at that point, was considered to be the prohibitive favorite to become the state’s next governor.

The simple, three-letter message certainly caught people’s attention, but because GumboPAC was completely unknown, it wasn’t clear whether this was just a gimmick or a part of a larger campaign. “It’s an eye-catching billboard,” Gambit’s Clancy DuBos told WWL, “but if that’s all there is, it’s going to be kind of a flash in the pan.”

Five months later, as the final votes were being counted in the runoff election between Vitter, a Republican, and John Bel Edwards, his Democratic opponent, it was clear that GumboPAC wasn’t just a “flash in the pan.” Indeed, their relentless campaign against Vitter was almost too successful.

“That one billboard created a buzz and inspired several news stories,” said GumboPAC’s chief strategist Trey Ourso, a Baton Rouge-based political guru and former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party. “It launched the ABV movement that would carry our message for the rest of the campaign. The team later joked that is was ‘the billboard heard round the world.’”  

Although their commercials, billboards, direct mailers, and digital ads focused on electing “anybody but Vitter,” Ourso quietly hoped Vitter would lose in the runoff against Edwards, not to one of the two Republican candidates he faced in the state’s jungle primary. (Edwards, as the lone Democrat in the field, was all but guaranteed a first-place finish in the primary and a spot in the runoff; the race, therefore, was for second place).

Vitter, who had seemed inevitable only months ago, suddenly now appeared vulnerable and managed to narrowly capture second place with only 23% of the vote. For Ourso, it couldn’t have been scripted any better. John Bel Edwards would clobber David Vitter in the runoff by more than 12 points, and Ourso’s work with GumboPAC would win a string of national awards.

To learn more about Ourso’s work in the 2015 Louisiana gubernatorial campaign, read his essay “Engineering a Surprise Democratic Victory in the Deep South” for the industry publication Campaigns & Elections.

During the past four years, Ourso continued to operate GumboPAC, though it often took a backseat to Rebuild Louisiana, a nonprofit organization that supports the governor’s legislative agenda. However, at the conclusion of this year’s legislative session, GumboPAC got back into gear.

As a brief digression, it is important to note that federal and state law prohibits political action committees from coordinating with any campaigns they support or for which they advocate. This also meant that, shortly after the conclusion of this year’s legislative session, no one associated with GumboPAC, including Ourso, could discuss strategy with anyone involved with the Edwards campaign. Like every other political reporter at every other news publication in Louisiana that covered the 2019 election, I occasionally spoke with individuals working for all three major candidates and those associated with various PACs and nonprofit organizations. I never saw any indication whatsoever that Edwards, Abraham, or Rispone engaged in anything even remotely similar to the kind of brazen coordination that members of David Vitter’s 2015 gubernatorial campaign or Bobby Jindal’s 2016 presidential campaign appeared to be conducting with PACs supporting their candidacies; in Jindal’s case, the same political consulting firm that was running his campaign was also running his PAC.

For Democrats, this year would require a different approach than the one employed in 2015, because although Republicans failed to field a top-tier recruit, the two candidates who emerged as Edwards’ leading opponents, Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone, both posed unique challenges.

Abraham, a three-term congressman representing the state’s sprawling Fifth District, may have not been a household name outside of Monroe and Alexandria, but among those who knew him, he was generally well-liked and had a solid conservative voting record. Rispone, on other hand, may have been completely unknown, but he had the financial resources to tell a compelling story about creating one of Louisiana’s biggest and most successful construction companies.

Moreover, unlike in 2015, neither the Edwards’ campaign nor the Louisiana Democratic Party, could count on the support of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which was reluctant to lend financial support to Edwards because of the so-called “heartbeat” bill restricting access to abortion that he had signed into law earlier in the year. The DNC would later change its position during the runoff, once Donald Trump gambled his own political capital on the race, but during the first several months of the campaign, this meant Louisiana Democrats would have less money for organizing and messaging.

Fortunately for Edwards and the state party, despite the DNC’s reluctance, another national organization, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA), was still willing to invest in Louisiana, and as they learned during the runoff election four years ago, the DGA knew where they could get the biggest bang for their buck: GumboPAC.

(Note: Before unpacking what exactly GumboPAC did that was, at least in my opinion, so critical to ensuring Edwards’ re-election, I think it’s important to note a few important points about the work we did here on the Bayou Brief, especially considering that a handful of their campaign commercials referenced and relied on reporting we published here. Sue Lincoln and I both began researching and reporting on this year’s election several months before GumboPAC turned on their ignition, and we learned about the decision to amplify our coverage of Abraham and Rispone the same exact way everyone else did: By seeing it either on television or through social media. I am immensely proud of our work and particularly grateful to Sue Lincoln, whose diligent and methodical reporting on Rispone helped inform hundreds of thousands of Louisiana voters, myself included. The Bayou Brief does not and has never accepted financial contributions or support from any political action committee or political campaign).

Now, with that out of the way:

This year, GumboPAC proved to be critical, once again, to ensuring Edwards’ win because it decided to do something that- for reasons I will never understand- neither of his two opponents thought necessary: In a series of commercials and through relentless social media promotions, GumboPAC introduced the overwhelming majority of Louisiana voters to Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone before either man’s campaign decided it was necessary to introduce themselves. In so doing, they effectively defined both candidates and left their campaigns scrambling to figure out how to respond.

In the case of Abraham, much of the blame can be assigned directly on the congressman himself, because only weeks after he announced his candidacy, with the federal government in the midst of a shutdown, a reporter for the Advocate decided to survey members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation with a simple question: Are you going to continue collecting your salary?

Abraham’s office confirmed that he would, in fact, cash his government paychecks, which may have struck some people as shameless in its own right, but there was something much more problematic about the answer. Ralph Abraham had been elected by promising voters he would donate his entire salary to St. Jude’s Hospital for Children and to a charity that provides artificial limbs and support services to wounded warriors suffering from multiple amputations. The congressman later attempted to clarify that his pledge to charity was only valid for his first term in office, but it didn’t take long to discover that his campaign website continued to advertise the pledge during his campaign for a second term and references to the pledge during his campaign for a third. Moreover, neither his office nor his campaign ever produced any documentation verifying donations to either charity.

While GumboPAC’s first ad this year was a playful cartoon about Mardi Gras that featured Abraham and Rispone and a cameo by Bobby Jindal, the first direct hit they landed was about Abraham’s broken promise. The congressman had essentially written it himself.

There were other troubling aspects of Abraham’s record, particularly for someone claiming to be a conservative Republican: He and his family had received millions in federal farm subsidies; he had sued an oil and gas company for damaging his property when it constructed a pipeline through it, and he’d continually missed important votes in Congress, including several for the reauthorization of the federal flood insurance program.

In the final weeks before the jungle primary, the Drug Enforcement Agency disclosed a massive database of pharmacies across the entire nation that dispensed opioids. Two of those pharmacies were owned either in part or outright by Abraham, a detail most had never known before I reported the story here on the Bayou Brief. Both pharmacies dispensed a massive supply of the powerful painkillers, and Abraham, as a physician, was also known to be one of the state’s most prolific prescribers of opioids. Indeed, at a candidate forum during his first campaign for Congress, Abraham responded to a question about medical marijuana by rejecting research about its benefits and boasted instead about name-brand opioids.

GumboPAC may have promoted those other reports through their digital ads on social media, but for the most part, it kept its attention focused on the congressman’s broken promise.

Rispone presented a different set of issues, because the millionaire businessman had effectively abandoned any attempt at presenting himself as his own man in favor of latching himself almost entirely onto Donald Trump.

For Edwards to win, however, he would require the support of a sizable portion of people who had voted for Trump only three years prior, which meant that, despite the desire of most Democrats, both the governor and his allies needed to be careful not to frame the election around the president. By simultaneously relinquishing his message to Trump and avoiding substantive discussions about public policy while also calling himself a “political outsider,” Rispone walked right into the message GumboPAC and, later, the Edwards’ campaign would use to characterize him to anyone unfamiliar: Phony Rispone.

The nickname was created by Adam Magnus, a DC-based consultant who was born and raised in New Orleans, and it became the most memorable part of this year’s election.

GumboPAC introduced “Phony Rispone” with this ad, which became the most-watched commercial of the entire election season and is based on a report I published here on the Bayou Brief.

It is highly unusual for a candidate to appropriate the branding created by a supporting PAC, but to the surprise of Ourso and his team at GumboPAC, during the runoff, the Edwards campaign picked up the “Phony Rispone” message and ran with it themselves.

These are from two commercials that the Edwards campaign aired during the runoff campaign (Note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out, as our readers already know, that both of these are based on reporting exclusively published here on the Bayou Brief, which, unlike GumboPAC, the campaign deliberately failed to acknowledge. Personally, though, I’m just happy he won).


To paraphrase the quote I included from President Kennedy, because of John Bel Edwards’ victory, everyone who contributed, in ways both big and small, can share in the credit for his win, particularly African American voters who showed up in unexpectedly large numbers during the runoff. While Abraham revealed himself to be a flawed candidate from the beginning and Rispone proved himself to be an incompetent one at the end and although Sen. John Neely Kennedy made things easier by misleading Donald Trump and Trey Ourso’s GumboPAC once again proved to be the best political strategist in a state in which nearly everyone believes themselves to be a political strategist, the truth is that one person- and one person alone- is responsible for winning the message war and ultimately the election: John Bel Edwards.

Notwithstanding Sue Lincoln’s critique of the Edwards’ campaign uneven messaging toward women and with tremendous respect and appreciation for the hundreds of grassroots leaders and volunteers Lynda Woolard mentioned in her report, John Bel Edwards won because he was the better candidate with a better record, a better campaign behind him, and a better story to tell (and for his supporters to tell on his behalf).

To that end, the people at the core of his campaign- those who ensured his message remained consistent and not derailed by Donald Trump or anyone who may have hoped to crown themselves as a “kingmaker”- served the governor extraordinarily well. Without question, even though his victory over Vitter was by a larger margin, the men and women who worked on his behalf this year accomplished something much more significant. Unlike four years ago, the Edwards campaign didn’t slip up, not even once, and in so doing, they helped to validate the trust and faith that the voters of Louisiana placed in him to lead the state for another four years.

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Lamar White, Jr.
Lamar writes about the people, the politics, and the magic of Louisiana. He is the founder and publisher of the Bayou Brief and a contributing writer for the Daily Beast. Lamar is best known for his investigative reporting on public corruption, racism, and civil rights. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC, and he's been the subject of profiles in The Washington Post, The Advocate, and Huffington Post. Before launching the Bayou Brief, he published CenLamar, a popular blog that initially covered the drama of City Hall in his hometown of Alexandria. Lamar is a graduate of Rice University in Houston and the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Today he lives in New Orleans and is currently writing a book about the life of reputed New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello. Support Lamar's work on Patreon.