BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Republican leaders working to oust the Deep South's only Democratic governor were trying Sunday to put their intraparty backbiting behind them ahead of Louisiana's November runoff election, needing a united focus if they want to keep John Bel Edwards from a second term.
National and local GOP officials publicly talked of rallying around businessman Eddie Rispone against the Democratic incumbent in the Nov. 16 election. Privately, they worked the phones, hoping supporters of third-place finisher, Republican Ralph Abraham, will shift their backing to Rispone and move past the Rispone-led attack ads that hobbled Abraham's campaign.
President Donald Trump already tweeted his support for Rispone in the head-to-head matchup, signaling other Republicans should do the same.
"Congratulations to the Great State of Louisiana. A big night. You will soon have a new and wonderful Governor, @EddieRispone," Trump said in one tweet.
Abraham immediately endorsed Rispone as he conceded the race.
Edwards was forced into the runoff election in his ruby red state when he didn't top 50% voter support in Saturday's primary, amid a six-candidate field. The Democratic governor received 47% of the vote, compared with 27% for Rispone and 24% for Abraham.
Down to one opponent, Edwards' campaign defended the governor's bipartisan record in office and quickly lashed out at Rispone, owner of an industrial contracting company from Baton Rouge who has largely self-financed his candidacy.
Although Rispone has described himself in the outsider mold of Trump, he is no stranger to government issues, working closely with Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal on workforce development initiatives and an education overhaul that expanded charter schools and voucher programs. He's donated to GOP candidates and causes for years.
"Eddie Rispone is as phony as they get," Edwards campaign manager Richard Carbo wrote in a memo touting Edwards' electability. "While he's trying to sell himself as an outsider now, the truth is, Eddie Rispone's the ultimate insider. He's been neck-deep in good ole boy politics for decades, trading campaign contributions for influence in Baton Rouge."
Still, Edwards' inability to garner support from a majority of the state's voters raised questions about his reelection chances against a national Republican offensive that includes Trump, who made an election eve appearance in Louisiana, actively working to oust him. The Democrat will need cross-party support to win, in a state that Trump won by 20 points.
If Republicans remain splintered, that could boost Edwards' chances. GOP leaders blamed their own fractured party for helping Edwards achieve victory in 2015. Then, Republican candidate David Vitter, damaged by a prostitution scandal, was wounded further by two Republican primary opponents refusing to endorse and assist Vitter in the runoff.
State Rep. Jack McFarland, a Winnfield Republican who backed Abraham, hasn't immediately thrown his support to Rispone. He said he's had a good relationship with Rispone on education issues but wants to talk with the gubernatorial contender more about other topics.
"I look forward to sitting down and having an open discussion with Eddie Rispone about how we move Louisiana forward," McFarland said Sunday.
When the runoff candidates became clear Saturday night, state GOP Chairman Louis Gurvich released a statement praising Rispone. Louisiana's top-ranking member of the U.S. House, No. 2 GOP House leader Steve Scalise, also issued a statement backing Rispone and comparing him to Trump.
"Louisiana needs an outsider like Eddie Rispone to turn our state around," Scalise said.
Republicans are working to nationalize the Louisiana governor's race, but Edwards doesn't quite fit the mold of national Democratic politics. The West Point graduate and former Army Ranger opposes abortion, objects to gun control measures and talks of working well with the Trump administration.
Pollsters say Edwards has been harmed by the U.S. House Democrats' impeachment inquiry energizing Republican votes against him, even as Edwards panned impeachment talk as a divisive waste of Congress' time.
When she voted for Abraham on Saturday, antiques dealer Marie Cavin said she didn't necessarily object to Edwards' performance, but she described herself as a Trump supporter who didn't feel comfortable supporting a Democrat.
"I don't really like what's going on with the Democrats nationally," Cavin said. "I just felt like I wanted to get a Republican in there."
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