While Democratic boosters in Louisiana are eager to double down on the candidacy of Gov. John Bel Edwards, Republican donors and conservative-minded associations are taking a wait-and-see approach. For now.
At the same time, political observers are beginning to wonder just how far a dollar can be stretched by modern campaigns. Sure, money still drives narratives and voters, but uncertainty about the coming cycle is keeping some cash locked away.
“We’re advising our folks to keep their powder dry,” said one political operative, a conversation mirrored by others on the right side of the spectrum. “Money needs to be sent to (Congressman Ralph) Abraham, because even if he loses, he’s still going to be on the Hill. But I’m not sure donors who play on that side should be maxing out in the primary… Any big decisions should probably wait until the runoff.”
From the perspective of pinching pennies, the ability of businessman Eddie Rispone, the other major GOP contender, to self-fund may be distracting donors from being as helpful as they otherwise would be. Moreover, Rispone has yet to prove himself in a forum or even a paid commercial. Abraham, while a known political brand, is likewise unproven on a statewide level.
GOP boosters are still trying to figure out the convoluted regional politics of this developing race. Abraham, of course, has to galvanize north Louisiana to be competitive and lock down his own 5th Congressional District, which has a minority population just under 35%. Rispone will do well in his native Baton Rouge and probably the River Parishes, leaving two critical battlegrounds for this pair of Republican contenders, assuming they remain the only two.
The “Pontchartrain Panini” of Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes is a must-have region for any conservative politico seeking success in statewide politics. That’s why Republicans in recent cycles have planted flags there first. With Abraham focusing on the piney north, Rispone shoring up his Red Stick base and both wanting to take bites out of the “Pontchartrain Panini,” that may leave Acadiana as the all-important swing region.
Given the low-key personalities of both Abraham and Rispone, their TV buys will matter more than usual, particularly if public forums and debates continue to be as difficult to cobble together as they are right now.
Reporting exclusively for LaPolitics.com, student journalists Sheridan Wall and Lauren Heffker of the LSU Manship School News Service penned a piece that asked a single question about the race: How much will money matter?
“Edwards’ campaign announced it has raised a total of $8.4 million so far, while Rispone pledged to use $5 million of his personal cash and has raised an additional $554,000,” the student journalists reported. “Abraham has not yet reported donations or spending for this race.
Wall and Heffker likewise asked political pros what they thought:
—”(The) value of a dollar diminishes a little bit as you go… I think money matters, but I think it matters more up to a point,” said James Carville, a Democratic political consultant, who also tagged $7.5 million as the threshold where political dollars begin to diminish.
—”It’s been a while since north Louisiana has won a statewide race of this importance. Those are a lot of challenges, and it takes a ton of money to do that. I don’t know how much that is, but probably more than (Abraham has) got,” said Bob Mann, a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.
—”So it’s really most critical for Ralph Abraham to show fundraising capacity and energy and ability, as opposed to Rispone, and the governor’s already shown it. The onus is on Abraham,” said Baton Rouge consultant Roy Fletcher.
—”Maybe people like Rispone look at (President Donald) Trump and say, ‘Hey, if Donald Trump can do it, I can do it too,’ but Trump had a following,” Mann added.
—”(Edwards) is going to have a tough fight, there’s no doubt about that,” Carville said.
For now, the gubernatorial campaign has a grassroots feel to it, which should change sooner than later.
Edwards dropped the first digital spots of the 2019 campaign last week, a pair of 15- and 30-second spots touting the state’s economic status during his time in office. “We’re moving in the right direction,” the governor says in the video, “but we’ve still got work to do.” A campaign spokesperson said that the “statewide” spot is the first in a series dubbed “Better Off.”
Abraham, meanwhile, spent part of last week visiting with former Gov. Mike Foster. “We had a great visit,” Foster told LaPolitics. Contacted for comment, Abraham added, “I went there to bend his ear and get his counsel.”
Then there’s Rispone, who recently waded into the growing battle over the state’s industrial tax exemption program. He wrote an op-ed in The Hayride, taking issue with Edwards’ 2016 executive order that gave greater control over ITEP to local bodies.
But what about the other candidates? Right now there are none. Insiders close to former Congressman John Fleming say that he will be making a final decision on the race “very soon” and state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, remains on lists of maybe-candidates.
For the announced contenders, that’s just fine. After all, there’s only so much money to go around, unless you’re willing to spend some of your own.