President Trump was headlining a rally Wednesday to influence the last gubernatorial contest of the year, bidding to drive out Louisiana’s governor in a show of political influence ahead of the 2020 elections.
With the stars of the reality television show “Duck Dynasty” in attendance, Trump was in the northern Louisiana city of Monroe boosting Republican businessman Eddie Rispone in his effort to keep Democrat John Bel Edwards from a second term in a crimson state Trump won by 20 percentage points. Early voting ends Saturday in the Nov. 16 election.
Over a thousand people were gathered outside the Monroe Civic Center early Wednesday morning, and over 40,000 people obtained tickets for the event. However, tickets have not guaranteed entry to Trump’s rallies, and the arena would hold up to 10,000 people.
Some members of the NAACP Monroe/Ouachita Parish Branch were protesting Trump’s arrival just outside of the arena, the Monroe Star reported. Echoing the chants at a recent rally hosted by Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the demonstrators also yelled, “Lock him up.”
But, pro-Trump enthusiasm was largely high among attendees in a festival-like atmosphere.
“He’s the best president we’ve had in quite a long time,” Darlene Smith of Mississippi told the paper. “He’s in it for the people. He’s not in it for the money. He’s not getting paid.”
An endorsement video circulated by the state GOP showed Trump describing Rispone as “a fantastic man, a great success. Everything he’s touched has turned to gold.” The president, who also has planned a Nov. 14 rally in Bossier City for Rispone, called Edwards “a disaster.”
Republicans have aimed to reclaim the governorship in a Deep South state where they’ve claimed Edwards won in a 2015 fluke election against a flawed candidate beset by a prostitution scandal. Democrats have said securing a second Edwards victory could demonstrate competitiveness in states where the party rarely has achieved a statewide office. A GOP loss could raise questions about the strength of Trump’s political coattails, but not necessarily his reelection chances, particularly since Louisiana is expected to back the president for reelection in 2020.
Trump was visiting the heart of the congressional district represented by Republican Ralph Abraham, the third-place finisher in the gubernatorial primary. Both Rispone and Edwards have been competing for Abraham’s voters. Polls showed a tight race, with few undecided voters and both campaigns hoping Trump will mobilize their bases.
“Most people have made up their mind. This is essentially a tie race at this point. It’s who gets out the vote,” Rispone told a Republican women’s luncheon Tuesday.
A longtime Republican political donor who has poured millions of his own money into the campaign, Rispone has tied his candidacy to Trump, introducing himself to voters in TV ads by talking about his support for the president.
The owner of an industrial contracting firm, Rispone has avoided many specifics about what he would do in office. Rispone’s campaign strategy has involved panning Edwards as a “liberal, tax-and-spend, career politician and trial lawyer” and nationalizing the race. He regularly has compared himself to Trump, declaring both were “conservative outsiders.”
Edwards, a former state lawmaker and military veteran, has downplayed national issues in favor of a defense of his own performance. He’s reminded voters about his Medicaid expansion program that dropped Louisiana’s uninsured rate below the national average and his work on a bipartisan tax deal that ended years of budget instability.
Both anti-abortion and pro-gun, Edwards in many ways hasn’t matched the platform of the national Democrats, but he holds positions that helped him draw support in 2015 from the Republican and independent voters he’d need to win again.
Even as Trump has campaigned against him, Edwards has sidestepped criticism of the president, describing a good working relationship with the White House.
“The president is doing what his party expects him to do. When it was time for governing, he invited me to the White House nine times,” Edwards said.
He called Trump’s criticism “general talking points” he’s used no matter the state or candidate. He noted, for example, that the president claimed Edwards threatened Second Amendment rights — but Edwards, Trump and Rispone haven’t differed much in their positions on guns.
At a campaign stop Wednesday in Monroe, Edwards pointed to the Kentucky governor’s race, where results showed Democrat Andy Beshear in the lead by a few thousand votes over Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a Trump ally. Edwards said Kentucky voters didn’t cast their ballots based on Trump’s visits, and he expected Louisiana voters wouldn’t either. Trump had joined Bevin at a Kentucky rally hours before Tuesday’s vote.
“The people of Louisiana, like the people of Kentucky, they will decide this race based on Louisiana issues, not Washington, D.C. issues,” Edwards said.
Ahead of Wednesday’s rally, Rispone blamed Edwards for anti-Trump radio ads recently released by a New Orleans organization. One ad linked the president and Rispone to white supremacist David Duke and encourage minority voters to “vote against hatred” by choosing Edwards. Rispone called it fearmongering. Edwards said he had nothing to do with the advertising.
Trump’s visit came a day after historic elections in Mississippi and Kentucky. The gubernatorial race in Kentucky has remained too close to call, while Republicans decisively held onto the governorship in Mississippi and elected Kentucky’s first black attorney general.
Democrats, meanwhile, took complete control over the Virginia statehouse for the first time in 26 years.
Fox News’ Alex Pappas and The Associated Press contributed to this report.