- The Washington Times - Friday, September 13, 2019

Incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana Democrat, holds a commanding fundraising lead over his closest rival as the Pelican State moves toward its October primary, according to the latest campaign finance reports.

In the state’s “jungle” primary, Mr. Edwards will face all challengers regardless of party affiliation Oct. 12, and the reports made available this week — the last to be filed before the primary — show the one-term governor with $5.6 million cash on hand.

His nearest competitor in recent polling is Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham, who, despite some moderate fundraising success over the summer, continues to run his campaign on a shoestring compared to the others, reporting $1.4 million available on Sept. 2, the date the reports were filed.

Meanwhile rookie candidate Eddie Rispone, a Republican businessman from Baton Rouge, has loaned his campaign another $1.5 million of his own money, reports show, bringing the total amount of his personal cash he has thrown into his political debut to $11.5 million.

While that puts him on equal footing with Mr. Edwards in fundraising, Mr. Rispone’s support appears to have slipped despite his spending more than $5 million on an advertising blitz that portrays him as a firm supporter of President Trump and an outsider clean of the political odor that often clings to Louisiana’s top elected officials.

Nevertheless, Mr. Edwards‘ own slick advertising and competitive fundraising has reinforced some whispers among Louisiana political insiders that he could conceivably win reelection in October by getting 50% plus 1 of the vote. If no candidate passes that threshold, the top two vote-getters would square off in a November runoff.

Mr. Edwards led with 47% of the vote in a private poll this week conducted by Bernie Pinsonat, a longtime political professional in Baton Rouge. Mr. Abraham came in second with 24%, while Mr. Rispone claimed 16%, a drop from previous polling that had him closer to the 20% mark.

While far from definitive, the numbers unsettled some Republicans who say Mr. Edwards, the Deep South’s lone Democratic governor, is vulnerable to a conservative challenger in a state where Mr. Trump remains popular.

While the Edwards and Rispone campaigns had no immediate comment on the fundraising reports, the Abraham camp attempted to dismiss any bad news, insisting their man more than Mr. Rispone is the Republican to beat.

Ralph Abraham is leading this race in the polls, endorsements and fundraising,” campaign senior strategist Lionel Rainey III said. “Ralph Abraham will be in a runoff with John Bel Edwards and he will win this race.”

In a memo accompanying the poll obtained by The Advocate, Mr. Pinsonat wrote that, “Ralph Abraham and Eddie Rispone are both performing poorly in the Orleans Metro and Baton Rouge area.”

Eddie Rispone is underperforming with white voters,” Mr. Pinsonat continued. “Unless Rispone improves dramatically with this demographic, his odds of making the runoff are slim. Ralph Abraham has made significant progress in Acadiana.”

Other late-summer polls have shown Mr. Edwards enjoying a similar lead.

Mr. Edwards, a former state representative from Tangipahoa Parish east of Baton Rouge, surprised outsiders in 2015 when he knocked off Republican Sen. David Vitter, who had alienated many GOP insiders and created fissures within the state Republican Party.

Although Mr. Pinsonat speculated Mr. Edwards would have won reelection had the voting been held this month, it is not clear whether two other Democratic candidates will siphon off enough support to hurt Mr. Edwards on Oct. 12. One of them, Omar Dantzler, is black while the other, Gary Landrieu, boasts the name of a longtime Louisiana Democratic dynasty.

Neither Mr. Dantzler nor Mr. Landrieu are major candidates, according to all polling and accounts, but even marginal vote totals for them could hold Mr. Edwards below the 50% mark, while the Republican vote is split between Mr. Abraham and Mr. Rispone.

Mr. Edwards has benefited from the split among GOP voters — something that would disappear if there is a runoff — and a healthy economy.

Republicans are striving to make voters aware that Louisiana’s economic performance is less than stellar given the overall U.S. economy under Mr. Trump, and noting Mr. Edwards expansion of Medicaid through Obamacare — what he bills as his greatest accomplishment — has been bedeviled by eligibility issues and overly rosy cost predictions.

The charges do not appear to be hitting home, however, as Mr. Edwards continues to enjoy a favorability ranking above 50%, and his own healthy campaign war chest has allowed him to inundate the airwaves with ads touting the state’s low unemployment rate and the like.

Some Louisiana conservatives have taken heart that Mr. Pinsonat’s respected Louisiana outfit, Southern Media and Opinion, last year put Mr. Edwards‘ approval rating north of 60%. But that has proved small solace given that neither Mr. Rispone nor Mr. Abraham seems to have caught fire with voters.

The Republican Governors Association has gotten into the act recently, running ads that depict Mr. Edwards as far less moderate than he poses, and they have tried to tie him to left-wing activist Stacey Abrams, who lost her gubernatorial bid in Georgia but continues to maintain it was stolen from her.

It’s not clear how much outside money may flow to the Edwards campaign should it find itself in a runoff. On the one hand, his position as the Democratic standard bearer in Deep South governors’ mansions makes him a plum figure, but on the other hand Democrats believe they have a fighting chance in neighboring Mississippi’s gubernatorial race, too.

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