BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ quest for a second term as the Deep South’s only Democratic governor will stretch over another month, as voters in his crimson state denied him a primary win Saturday and sent him to a runoff election.
The Democratic incumbent was unable to top 50% of the vote in the six-candidate field, raising questions about his reelection chances against a national Republican offensive that includes President Donald Trump.
Trump made a last-minute appeal to Louisiana’s voters to reject Edwards.
Edwards will compete in the Nov. 16 runoff against businessman Eddie Rispone.
Republicans sought to prove that Edwards’ longshot victory in 2015 was a fluke, aided by a flawed GOP opponent, David Vitter, who was hobbled by a prostitution scandal and attacks on his moral character from fellow Republicans in the primary.
Rispone, 70, founder of a Baton Rouge industrial contracting company, is a long-time GOP political donor running for his first elected office. He largely self-financed his campaign, pouring $11 million in the race. He presented himself in the mold of Trump, describing himself as a conservative outsider who would upend the traditional political system of Baton Rouge.
“We need a CEO, someone with serious business experience,” Rispone told supporters. “Both sides of the aisle have failed you. It’s time to do something different.”
Voter Barbie Edwards said she supported Rispone when she cast her early vote in the New Orleans area.
“He’s a good businessman. He’d be a good businessman for the state like Trump is for the country,” she said.
Democrats want an Edwards reelection win to show they can compete even in a ruby red state that Trump won by 20 points.
But the 53-year-old Edwards isn’t exactly a Democrat in the national mold.
The West Point graduate and former Army Ranger opposes abortion and gun restrictions, talks of working well with the Trump administration and calls the U.S. House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry a distraction to governing in Washington. He signed one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans.
Throughout his campaign, Edwards sought to make the election a referendum on his performance rather than a commentary on Louisiana views on national politics.
The Democratic incumbent contrasted three recent years of budget surpluses with the deficit-riddled terms of his predecessor, Republican Bobby Jindal. Edwards and the majority-GOP state Legislature passed a tax deal that stabilized state finances and allowed for new investments in public colleges and the first statewide teacher raise in a decade.
“When I took office, the state of Louisiana had the largest budget deficit in our history,” Edwards said. “We did the hard, bipartisan work necessary to right the ship, to strengthen our economy.”
Edwards expanded Louisiana’s Medicaid program, adding nearly a half-million new people to government-financed health care and lowering the state’s uninsured rate below the national average. A bipartisan criminal sentencing law rewrite he championed ended Louisiana’s tenure as the nation’s top jailer.
Josh Jansen, voting at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans with his wife and son, cast his ballot for Edwards.
“I just think he’s done a good job. He’s a good mix of Republican and Democrat,” Jansen said. He said he appreciated Edwards’ working across the aisle, which he said is uncommon in U.S. politics these days.
Barbara Bacot, a retired state employee, also voted for Edwards.
“He has done a very good job in the teeth of opposition from people who should know better. You can’t lower taxes and run a good state,” she said at her Baton Rouge polling place.
Republicans panned the governor’s performance, saying Edwards raised taxes too high, stifling economic development and chasing people from Louisiana.