Incumbent Governor John Bel Edwards will remain the only Democratic governor in the deep south, after winning a tightly-contested governor's election against Republican businessman Eddie Rispone Saturday night, according to the Associated Press.
The Democratic candidate's win is a discouraging sign for Republicans and President Donald Trump, who were using this race as a barometer for Mr. Trump's ability to persuade voters in the state he won by 20 points in 2016. In the two months leading up to Election Day, the president visited the Pelican State three times to help drum up support for Rispone. The Republican National Committee also invested $2 million in the race and had 60 staffers on the ground.
In the end, Governor Edwards was boosted by an energized black turnout from early voting and a substantial Democrat showing in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge suburbs. His team also made deliberate efforts to reach out to Republican voters who supported Republican candidate Representative Ralph Abraham in the primary. Edwards expressed confidence in his ability to win over the necessary coalition on the campaign trail.
"I believe the people of Louisiana want to keep moving forward. They can remember how bad things were four years ago," he told CBS News Saturday morning as he waved signs reminding residents of New Orleans to vote. "They know we're stronger, better today, and I believe we're going to be better four years from now after the end of my second term."
Edwards showed his gratitude to voters at his election night watch party in Baton Rouge on Saturday, where voters erupted in chants of "four more years" as the race was called.
"How sweet it is! The goodness, the decency, the generosity... just look around this room. You didn't just vote for me, you voted for four more years of putting Louisiana first," he said surrounded by local and state Democratic members. "And as for the president, god bless his heart," he added soon after.
Like other Republican gubernatorial candidates this year in Kentucky and Mississippi, Rispone leaned heavily on his Trump connection and touted himself as a conservative businessman outsider on the campaign trail.
"The citizens of Louisiana, they are tired of being last. They really have wakened up and said we don't have to be last," Rispone said Friday in Shreveport during one of his final campaign stops before election day. "God has blessed this state with incredible natural resources, most of all our people, and it's time for a change. We can be number one in the south when it comes to jobs and opportunity." Voters in attendance told CBS News there was appeal in a businessman running the state government.
Edwards ended up with 51 percent and roughly 40,000 votes over Rispone's 49 percent. Unofficial results from Louisiana's secretary of state show a turnout of 1.5 million, about 39 percent of the state's 3.56 million voting age population, according to the Federal Register.
At his concession speech, Rispone said he was disappointed and thanked his supporters, as well as Mr. Trump.
"That man loves America and he loves Louisiana, he came down here three times to help us. Give him another round of applause," Rispone said in Baton Rouge.
As people headed to the polls Saturday, Edwards said he believed voters would decide to go with his record over the past four years including turning the state's budget deficit into a surplus, giving teachers a pay raise, tackling criminal justice reforms, and reducing the number of people without health insurance to its lowest point in Louisiana's history. At his election night watch party he emphasized working on early education, increasing minimum wage and giving women equal pay for equal work.
Edwards was 3 percent shy of the 50 percent threshold necessary for winning the race outright in October's jungle primary, due to 20-percent-plus showings from Rispone and Republican U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham.
The governor's win in the runoff was an encouraging sign for Democrats, who went two-of-three this year in their southern gubernatorial races with wins in Kentucky and Louisiana and a loss in Mississippi.
Democratic Governors Association spokesperson David Turner said in a statement, "Just like Governor-elect Andy Beshear's victory in Kentucky, Governor Edwards' win proves that strong Democrats can be competitive anywhere in the country — in red, blue and purple states. Louisiana voters rewarded Governor Edwards with four more years because of his bipartisan record of success and I look forward to seeing the progress he will make for Louisiana in his second term.
While Rispone tried to capitalize off Trump and the national Republican brand, Edwards distanced himself from the more liberal wing of the Democratic party in Washington portrayed by Republicans, especially in a historically conservative state that was overwhelmingly pro-Trump in 2016 and has a Republican-led state legislature.
"I've never changed who I am or what I believe," Edwards told CBS News while explaining how he navigated the president's visits to the state and the national political dialogue. "I'm squarely in the middle of the political spectrum here in Louisiana. The people of Louisiana are comfortable with that. They have been. That's why they elected me four years ago."
"John Bel is very socially conservative. I mean, he's pro-life, he's pro-second amendment, but on everything else, he's fought to increase the minimum wage," said Democratic State Representative Ted James. "The first thing he did in office was sign Medicaid expansion and gave 400,000 Louisianans health insurance and he's continued to fight for women, so I think people have seen through the national politics and really voted for him based on his credentials."
Louisiana political consultant Mary-Partricia Wray told CBS News before election day that Trump's presence may have had a double-sided effect on voters.
"I think that he creates enthusiasm among those who are already likely to vote for a Republican. And the inverse is also true, that if he comes here a lot, it makes those who disagree with him very angry and makes them pay attention too," she said.
Democratic New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, the first woman elected to lead the city in its history, held a get out the vote rally Friday night. She told CBS News the governor had been unwavering in his support for her city and it was important for her that the partnership continue, citing infrastructure as one of the key issues. She also cited early childhood education and health care, an issue that has been one of the top issues for Democrats nationally.
"Medicaid expansion was significant in our state, and we did not have that until Governor John Bel Edwards was elected," Cantrell said. "The disparities in our state are real but the impact has been tremendous. And we want to continue to make sure our people have what they need to live a successful life and a healthy life in our city and in our state."
Chairman of the state's Legislative Black Caucus Randal Gaines, a Democrat, said before Saturday that the hyper-partisan and nationalized approach deployed by Republicans wouldn't bring Rispone a win.
"The Republicans on the national and state level are basically advocating a partisan agenda," Gaines said. "That the citizens should go out and vote for Rispone not because he had a demonstrated record of running a government, not because he has a track record of having done anything to advance Louisiana… because there is no record of that. It's only because he's a Republican. And that's not enough for this state."