BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Without a clear Republican favorite for Louisiana governor, President Donald Trump was traveling to the state Friday for an election eve rally that's less about the GOP candidates and more a slash-and-burn hit against Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards.
Trump's message to voters in Lake Charles will be less precise than traditional get-out-the-vote events. He'll seek to unite a squabbling Republican Party against the Deep South's only Democratic governor, trying to keep Edwards from a primary win, while not telling voters which GOP contender to back in Saturday's election.
"I will be in Louisiana tonight (Love it!) to get Republicans to vote for either of our two great Republican Candidates and force a run off with John Bel Edwards," Trump said in one of several tweets about the Louisiana governor's race.
Republican loyalties are split among two major candidates: Ralph Abraham, a third-term congressman and physician from rural northeast Louisiana, and Eddie Rispone, a businessman and longtime political donor from Baton Rouge who is making his first bid for office.
Both Abraham and Rispone planned to attend the rally. Both claim long-term support from Trump, even as they quarrel over who backs the president more.
"The president deeply cares about Louisiana. Louisiana loves President Trump. It is a match that is literally made in heaven," Abraham said.
The president is not endorsing either candidate to maximize chances that Edwards will fall below the 50% vote threshold needed to avoid a runoff, according to a White House aide and a campaign aide, both of whom asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss strategy. Trump plans to endorse whichever GOP candidate makes it to a runoff against Edwards, the aides said.
In Louisiana, all candidates run against each other, regardless of party, on the same primary ballot. With polls showing Edwards well in the lead, national Republicans have bombarded the state with millions in advertising and visits from Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. to urge anti-Edwards votes and force a Nov. 16 runoff.
"Trump is going to energize the base, the people, the conservatives, make them recognize that we need to do something different," Rispone said.
In a tweet ahead of the rally, Trump slammed the governor on taxes and called Edwards "suspect" on the Second Amendment. But tax hikes during Edwards' term only passed with Republican support, and Edwards' pro-gun positions match the stances of Trump, Abraham and Rispone.
At a news conference in Lake Charles on Friday, Edwards noted the imprecision of Trump's attacks while defending his record as the state's chief executive. He also again noted his "good working relationship" with the White House, even as he urged voters not to follow Washington's lead when choosing their next governor.
"In Louisiana, we know how to work together to move our state forward," Edwards said. "And the sad reality is they just can't seem to do that in Washington, D.C., anymore. So, I don't think Louisiana should be taking inspiration from the partisanship of D.C."
Pollster John Couvillon thinks Trump's visits will have marginal impact, animating only those voters who already planned to show up at the polls. He thinks Edwards' bigger problem is the U.S. House Democrats' impeachment inquiry, which he said could inspire voters in this red state to cast their ballots against any member of the party.
"To some extent, you can't entirely escape what has become the stigma of the national Democratic Party here in Louisiana," Couvillon said.
Edwards isn't the type of liberal, anti-Trump Democrat with whom the president usually clashes.
Louisiana's governor is an anti-abortion, pro-gun West Point graduate who avoids criticizing Trump, talks about his strong rapport with the White House and calls the impeachment inquiry a distraction for Washington. He doesn't focus on party affiliation and tries to avoid national political feuds in a state Trump won by 20 points.
While Edwards' efforts to keep the president at bay in the governor's race have been unsuccessful, the Democratic incumbent isn't complaining about the rallies. Instead, he has downplayed them, calling it unsurprising that Trump backs members of his own party in the "hyperpartisan" environment of Washington. He said he would continue to "work well" with the president and focus on his own, bipartisan approach to governing.
"When my opponents realized just how much support my campaign had from the people of Louisiana, they started calling in help from forces in Washington, D.C.," Edwards said. "My opponents are obsessed with political partisanship because the only way they think they can win is to divide the state of Louisiana."
Republicans nationally have targeted Edwards for ouster since his longshot election victory four years ago. But work to unify around one major contender failed, with the state's top-tier, well-known GOP officials passing on the race.
Neither Abraham nor Rispone has been able to break away as the top competitor, even as Rispone poured $11 million of his own personal wealth into the campaign.
Party leaders' efforts to keep the men from fighting each other have failed, raising concerns the backbiting could wound both GOP contenders and help Edwards. Republicans blame attacks among their own candidates for helping to elect Edwards four years ago.
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