Jeremy Alford

The locker room chatter in and around the gubernatorial campaign of Congressman Ralph Abraham can be summed up in five words: “Not Ready for Prime Time.”

The phrase is a nod to an opinion piece published by The Advocate in February 2018, in which Abraham was criticized for being “out of touch, lacking ideas.” Now, more than a year later, polling trends show Abraham positioned for a runoff spot against Gov. John Bel Edwards — unless the incumbent can capture 50 percent plus one in the primary, which remains a hope of key boosters.

At least that’s the big picture snapshot for the moment, with about two weeks to go until early voting commences and roughly a month to go until Election Day.

For businessman Eddie Rispone of Baton Rouge, who has gained ground through aggressive media buys and his pro-Trump messaging, that means there are only a few viable options for picking up votes:

Tap into the undecided vote, which is going to be difficult. That segment of the electorate may be riper ground for Abraham and Edwards.

Attack the governor and hope his votes fall off and end up anywhere but with Abraham. This kind of tactic can be a tricky dance, but you can expect Rispone to continue hammering Edwards in the coming weeks.

Ignore Ronald Reagan’s golden rule and attack a fellow Republican, namely Abraham.

That latter category seems unavoidable at this juncture, although it’ll likely be a third party and not Team Rispone that launches the bombs. (Risponse is already fielding attacks himself from GUMBO PAC and others.)

Abraham has been a favorite in a few conservative media circles, some of which will step out on a limb for the Alto physician in the coming weeks. He’s also slated for some national talking-head appearances soon.

But where Abraham may be headed in this race is one thing, and how he got here — from the standpoint of a low-money, north Louisiana bid — is another.

For starters, his campaign’s direct mail program is notable, particularly since Team Rispone has yet to drop mail. The congressman’s campaign has generated hundreds of thousands of NRA-style letters — old school, in the envelope and all — making monetary appeals, which in turn is being used to fund their traditional direct mail efforts. In other words, it’s a self-sustainable, somewhat humanizing mail program.

Such tactics have been priceless for Abraham, who is otherwise being outspent significantly by the incumbent and Rispone. As such, earned media has been a handy tool for Abraham’s campaign, and there’s no better example of that than his “two genders” commercial that generated a ton of news ink.

Abraham’s staff has also been diligent about reaching out to local reporters on the campaign trail, which has paid dividends. Those same reporters, meanwhile, have complained this summer about the lack of access granted to Rispone. At one point it looked as if it could have become an issue for Rispone, but his scheduled TV debate appearances seem to have calmed some nerves.

Rispone instead has taken his campaign directly to voters with media buys so massive that his opponents suggest he has already reached saturation, which has a gentle touch of truth to it (only maybe 75 percent to 80 percent, as compared to 100 percent). Rispone’s buys, in concert with Edwards’ spending, have also artificially inflated media prices statewide, making it more difficult for cash-strapped candidates like Abraham to buy in like they would under other circumstances.

(These massive media buys may be the new normal, with consultants statewide arguing that it’s taking more points than normal for a message to stick.)

As for President Donald Trump, Risponse has gone big, and anyone watching television knows as much. Abraham, in contrast, has adopted a more nuanced approach that is still pro-Trump, but takes into account all Trump voters aren’t alike.

In terms of in-state support, Abraham has likewise taken care to flaunt his 200 or so endorsements, but they’re much more than names on a page. A closer review of the list shows Abraham, dating back a year or so, started to cobble together a collection of personalities from the state’s courthouse gangs. Garnering local-level support was something Edwards did well in 2015, and members of the Abraham team believed they were taking the fight directly to the governor with their municipal and parish pushes.

For strategist Lionel Rainey and data boss Bill Skelly, the goal is to stretch every dollar Abraham has, maximize earned media every day, carefully explain the candidate’s support of the president and focus on targeted support. They’ll also willingly agree that Abraham may have not been ready for “prime time” in February of 2018, but he’s certainly ready for the primary ballot this year.

So only one overriding question remains on the GOP side: Will Abraham actually make it past the first round, or will Rispone start to surge?

We should have an answer soon.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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