Every gubernatorial election has a turning point, when things get just weird enough to justify the price of admission. As many of you surely know, that turning point is happening right now.
Businessman Eddie Rispone of Baton Rouge more or less napalmed the rest of the top of the ticket with two contrast ads last week, hitting both incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Congressman Ralph Abraham, a fellow Republican from Alto.
During the cycle’s first televised debate, many assumed Rispone would come out swinging, likely to the beat of own his attack ads from the days prior. But instead, Rispone took a cue from late President Richard Nixon, who was fond of saying, “When the action is hot, keep the rhetoric cool.”
Rispone sat back as the governor fielded criticisms from Abraham, who clearly intended to make the debate about him and Edwards only. The incumbent, who can return a punch, more times than not took the bait, allowing Rispone to cool his heels as his opponents squared off.
“I’m just watching two politicians go after each other,” Rispone said when he was allowed to speak following one such dustup.
By launching attack ads last week against anything that wasn’t nailed down on the campaign trail, and by transforming into this kind of hybrid candidate (I’m not sure; maybe the blended byproduct of Donald Trump meets Ross Perot meets John Kennedy meets Warren Buffet), Rispone has become the official risk-taking candidate with the wild card bid to watch.
As of two weeks ago, I wasn’t certain where Rispone’s campaign was headed. At least we know now it’s going to be entertaining. Every gubernatorial cycle seems to flip a set of political fundamentals upside down, like Edwards long shot win in 2015 over a heavyweight Republican in a GOP state.
This go around, in 2019, Rispone’s performance many have shown us that debates do truly matter. Since last week’s televised forum, Rispone has seen a bump in one poll. Supporters should wait for more polls — and more time to pass — before crowing, but it’s likely a sign of something.
If nothing else, it underscores how interesting the race for second place has become. While Rispone and his allies have been able to keep pace with the money on the Democratic side, Abraham has lagged behind financially but has benefitted from a smart campaign strategy that seems to be relying on targeted support, regional politics and earned media.
The most we can say right now (on Sept. 23) is the race for second place appears to be competitive. On the other hand, chatter remains audible about Edwards pulling off a victory in the primary and avoiding a runoff. The governor’s numbers are incredibly strong, and few are willing to completely count him out.
Still, no one is rolling the dice like Rispone. His attack ads in particular represent not only a mile-marker in the 2019 governor’s race, but also a case study for Louisiana politics.
While there are always exceptions, Rispone seems to have broken a few fundamental rules of negative warfare. For starters, most politicians hide behind third party groups to make attacks for them, allowing their hands to remain clean. On the other hand, the attacks may have already helped Rispone set himself apart from the field.
Rispone also ignored the pleas of party diehards to keep it clean on the GOP side. Predictably, Republicans in Abraham’s camp lashed out at Rispone for his attack ad against the congressman, and Abraham told reporters he would keep his messaging positive.
(Abraham’s team did last week what it has done the entire campaign — they worked the earned media angle like hounds, begging television stations across the state for news time to respond to Rispone’s ad.)
To be certain, all of the hubbub aids Rispone in his claims of being an “outsider,” because he’s not exactly playing well with others at the moment.
Rispone’s other attack ad against Edwards, meanwhile, has stirred up a hornet’s nest at the Capitol. The spot attempted to shed light on the perceived shortcomings of recent criminal justice reform efforts, which brought together Republicans and Democrats at one policy table. As such, many conservatives who supported criminal justice reforms felt burned by the move.
For a first-time candidate like Rispone, it’s not a bad position to be in, with politicos and voters beginning to wonder about the same thing: What will he do next? The same question is equally fascinating for the governor, who enjoys a traditional incumbent’s edge, and Abraham, whose country campaign for the Mansion is hitting notable marks without the usual cashflow.
The good news is we won’t have to wait long for answers.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.