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Louisiana governor's race is the latest test of Trump's clout

Trump rallies supporters in Louisiana
john bel edwards and eddie rispone
FILE: Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana GOP gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone Getty Images / Jon Kopaloff; AFP via Getty / Mandel Ngan

In Louisiana, incumbent Governor John Bel Edwards will be trying to defend his position as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South in the election runoff Saturday night. Republican Eddie Rispone helped force a runoff after getting enough votes in October's jungle primary to keep Edwards 3 percentage points short of 50%. Under a jungle primary, if no candidate wins 50%, the top two candidates, regardless of party, face a runoff.

President Trump has taken an interest in the race, appearing with Rispone in Bossier City, Louisiana, on Thursday — his third time in the state in the past two months. Mr. Trump also rallied earlier this month with incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin in Kentucky, who conceded his race to Steve Beshear Thursday. The president enjoys substantial popularity in Louisiana, a state he won by 20 points in 2016. 

On Thursday, the president presented the Louisiana election as a chance to send a message "to the corrupt Democrats in Washington."

"They are corrupt, they are crazy, crazy, they are crazy, that you're not going to let them destroy our country and rob your children of their future," he said. "By supporting Eddie, you will deliver a powerful rebuke to the socialists trying to sabotage our democracy and to erase your cherished way of life in Louisiana."

During a Thursday call with reporters, Republican National Committee spokesperson Sebastian Gorka said the RNC has funneled $2 million into the race and that "the reason we have an election on Saturday is because the president went down there and held Governor Edwards under 50 percent. So we're in it to win."

Republicans and Rispone have invoked Mr. Trump's name in most of their messaging during this race. Rispone communications director Anthony Ramirez said, "Eddie often says he wants to do for Louisiana what Donald Trump has done for America: create jobs and grow our economy."

In one of his final stump speeches Friday, Rispone criticized the state's economic performance under Edwards and praised the president.

"That is amazing what he's done for Louisiana. He really loves Louisiana. He's got a special spot in his heart for us," Rispone said at his final Shreveport stop on the campaign trail Friday. "…it's time for a change. We can be number one in the south when it comes to jobs and opportunity."

Edwards is the only incumbent Democratic governor up for reelection this year, after winning in 2015 with 56% of the vote compared to GOP Senator David Vitter's 44%. On the trail, he's kept the focus on state issues such as education, Medicaid expansion and bringing the state into a budget surplus — all things that his messaging suggests Rispone would roll back.

"If Eddie Rispone is elected, we risk losing all the progress that we made, like increased funding for our classrooms, TOPS scholarships, pay raises for teachers, and more funding for early childhood education. Rispone would drag us back to the days of Jindal. And we're not going back," an ad released on Tuesday says.

The state-focused approach is one that the Democratic Governors Association is heralding after Democrat Andy Beshear's campaign proved successful in Kentucky. Chairman of the state's Legislative Black Caucus Randal Gaines, a Democrat, pointed to the hyper-partisan and nationalized approach deployed by Republicans as another reason Rispone will be defeated.

"The Republicans on the national and state level are basically advocating a partisan agenda. 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," Gaines said. 

The Democratic and Republican Governors Associations have collectively poured close to $7 million in runoff advertisements, which have recently focused on local spats. Democrats are harping on Rispone's comments that Edwards, a West Point grad, "hurt the reputation" of the academy. Republicans are criticizing Edwards for the state's high car insurance, as well as how he handled flooding in the state in 2016. 

While the latest Morning Consult poll shows Edwards with a decent approval rating of 52 percent, he is still facing a toss-up race. He's tried to set himself apart from the image of national Democrats portrayed by Republicans, especially in a historically conservative state that was overwhelmingly pro-Trump in 2016.    

At the last debate, Rispone brought up his opponent's vote as a superdelegate for Hillary Clinton in 2016 in an attempt to tie Edwards to Washington Democrats. Edwards responded to this and made clear he doesn't want to involve any talk from Washington D.C.

"There ya go, you're always looking to Washington D.C. There's not much inspiration to be had there. The dysfunction that has gripped our nation's capital has prevented [them] from doing anything meaningful to tackle our nation's biggest challenges," Edwards said. 

"Well, you ignored the question again.. the truth of the matter is you're gonna support whoever wacko that they get again to run against Donald Trump, who wants to do away with planes, trains and cows," Rispone retorted. 

The runoff's early election period brought in the highest early-voting turnout for a non-Presidential election, according to the office of Louisiana's secretary of state. In a welcome sign for Democrats and Governor Edwards, his pivotal African-American turnout increased substantially compared to the primary early vote.

"One thing that led to surge of voting… is many Democrats in the state assumed he would win the race, they were confident he would win. Sometimes when there's confidence, there's less of a sense of urgency. Once he didn't win in the primary, the broad support that he has in this state basically became energized, and a sense of urgency rose," Gaines said. 

Still, Louisiana political consultant Mary Patricia Wray said Edwards has to continue to turn out metro-suburban white moderates if he wants to win, a similar demographic that helped secure a win for Beshear in Kentucky.

"Just like conservatives south of Cincinnati had permission to go Democrat in the Kentucky race, so now do conservatives need permission to vote for John Bel Edwards. They had a clear permission slip in 2015 against Vitter," Wray told CBS News.

Despite Bevin's defeat in Kentucky, the Republican Governors Association dismissed any comparisons between Kentucky and Louisiana and said it would not alter its strategy. 

Both sides are expecting a very close race: the latest Mason-Dixon poll shows Edwards with a slight 2-point lead. 

"This race is going to come down to turnout. The polls all show a tie or statistical tie within the margin of error. It's a tie ballgame and it's going to be about who gets their players on the field," said Republican Governors Association spokesperson Amelia Chassé Alcivar. 

Eleanor Watson and Sarah Ewall-Wice contributed to this report. 

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