Danae Columbus: Gov. Edwards working it to gain edge in Saturday’s runoff


Gov. John Bel Edwards met with New Orleans artists last night at Studio B. Edwards is flanked by motivational speaker Dr. Ansel Augustine, Kevin Griffin, Gizmo and Brandan “B-mike” Odums. (Danae Columbus)

Buoyed by a new Mason-Dixon poll that shows a path — albeit small — to victory, Gov. John Bel Edwards spent Wednesday evening talking with young African-American artists like Brandan Odums, Kevin “2-Cent “ Griffin and Tayla Hunter as part of his ongoing outreach to previously under-appreciated constituencies.

If Edwards is able to pull off what would be a Hail Mary victory on Saturday, he will have succeeded in three crucial areas: motivating minority voters who were unenthusiastic in the primary; reaching conservative voters who at one time supported former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu; and branding Republican opponent Eddie Rispone as too radical to be Louisiana’s next governor.

Even as a slight majority of voters are inclined to pull the lever for Edwards, he still has to get supporters to the polls. Failure to accomplish this most important goal will lead to a Rispone victory and the defeat of the South’s only Democratic governor.

Voters have to hand it to Rispone. He’s assertive, confident and always seems to be in control. He plays the game on his terms. Even as a first-time candidate, Rispone has a clear vision of what messages would resonate with the public and the ready cash (more than $16 million) to fund that messaging.

Having a popular, cooperative president willing to personally appear at two rallies has also been helpful.  Although President Trump was not on the ballot last week, he played an outsized role in state elections in Virginia and Kentucky. When Democratic candidates won those races, Edwards’ campaign became more hopeful that the Trump brand is not always transferable. But now, Trump is investing big in a Louisiana victory to even up the score.

Rispone has been luxuriating in Trump’s shadow. They could almost be twins. Yet pollsters believe that a trickle of Louisiana’s more moderate Republican voters – perhaps turned off by how Rispone belittled his “friend” U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham during the primary election — seems to be shifting toward Edwards. That mini-trend follows what is happening nationally as more suburban and urban Republicans begin to look beyond partisan polarization.

Edwards’ team claims his popularity is growing because voters value the many strides made during the past four years, including Medicaid expansion, improvements in education, and replacing a budget deficit with a budget surplus. Rispone’s supporters yearn for a return to the policies and style of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, which featured lower corporate taxes and a leaner government.

Gov. Edwards is actually a very lucky guy. He raised approximately $15 million during the primary and spent most of it chasing elusive white voters, many of whom never considered supporting him.  Minority voters are the key to any Democratic election in the South. If he had spent more time and money getting minorities to the polls, he could have avoided this runoff.

Edwards now recognizes where his bread is buttered. He’s investing in minority communities by attending rallies, church services and gatherings like last night, where 30 artists turned out for one-on-one conversations with the governor. In addition, minority social and civic organizations have been encouraging voter participation.  Edwards could also benefit because other faith-based organizations, including Together Louisiana, stepped up to increase voter turnout.

Another critical part of Edwards’ mix is the effort to build enthusiasm among female voters. Organizers are expecting up to 1,000 women to join Edwards for a luncheon rally on Friday at the Hyatt. Later that evening, Edwards will join Mayor LaToya Cantrell for a free “Turn Up Turn Out” rally at Fulton Street Square featuring Dumpstaphunk with special guest Trombone Shorty, The Soul Rebels, Tank, Mannie Fresh and many more performers.

A large number of African-Americans went to the polls during early voting, which was good for Edwards. But Edwards did not get the white vote he needed. President Trump’s visit to Bossier City’s Century Link Center tonight will spur increased Republican turnout in north Louisiana. As long as Edwards wins 90% of the minority vote and 33% of the white vote, he will be re-elected.

Working with a sophisticated national network, Rispone is banking on white voters remaining loyal to the Republican cause. He could have a problem in voter-rich Jefferson Parish, where few Republican elected officials have jumped on board with his campaign. But he can make up those numbers in Monroe and Shreveport. In the end, it will all boil down to turnout.

Republicans see blood in the water. In one-on-one competitions, Louisiana Democrats running statewide almost always lose to Republicans. This race could be different. On Saturday, Louisiana voters will have a chance to decide which candidate is the best fit. Will the winner be Rispone, whom the Edwards camp has branded as “phony,” or Edwards, whom Republicans have called “a radical liberal”?

The polls open Saturday at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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