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Can A Democrat Get Reelected Governor In Louisiana?

A lot of things are unusual about Louisiana’s governor election. There’s the timing (the election is tomorrow, Oct. 12 — a Saturday) and the rules (there may or may not be a second round of voting in November). But perhaps most unusual is the fact that a state as red as Louisiana already has a Democratic governor — and there’s a good chance he wins again.

For starters, Gov. John Bel Edwards is popular. In one recent poll, he had a +18 net approval rating (50 percent of Louisianans approved of his job performance and 32 percent disapproved) — a remarkable achievement for a Democrat in a state that is 17 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole.1 That said, Louisiana does have a long history of centrist Democratic governors, and Edwards has taken a page right out of their book. He has carved a path down the political middle, earning the ire of national Democrats earlier this year when he signed a bill that bans abortions after fetal cardiac activity can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. But politically speaking, it was probably the right call in Louisiana: According to a 2018 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, the state has the nation’s lowest share of people who think abortion should be legal in most or all cases. He has also worked with Republican state legislators to pass other major legislation during his first term, including a tax deal that stabilized the state’s shaky finances and a series of criminal-justice reform bills that helped end Louisiana’s run as the state with the nation’s highest incarceration rate. Accordingly, many local Republicans (most notably Senate President John Alario) are now even supporting him for reelection.

But thanks to Louisiana’s “jungle primary” system (whereby all candidates, regardless of party, run together in the same election), Edwards will face five challengers on Saturday. That said, only two of them are serious contenders: Rep. Ralph Abraham and construction magnate Eddie Rispone, both Republicans. Abraham started off the race as Edwards’s main Republican rival; back in April, 38 percent of voters supported Edwards, 23 percent supported Abraham and only 7 percent supported Rispone, according to pollster JMC Analytics. But since then, the independently wealthy Rispone has blanketed the state with TV ads, including one that attacked Abraham. As of Sept. 22, the end of the most recent filing period, Rispone has spent almost $10.5 million on the race (most of it his own money), and still has $2.7 million in the bank. By contrast, Abraham has had far fewer resources at his disposal, spending only $2.9 million so far and with less than $319,000 on hand. (Edwards has spent more money on his campaign than either of them, deploying more than $11 million and boasting $3.2 million on hand.) And Rispone is now in a virtual tie with Abraham in the polls — and maybe even a little ahead.

A close race for second place in Louisiana

Public polls of the Louisiana governor’s race conducted since Oct. 1

Dates Pollster Sample Edwards (D) Rispone (R) Abraham (R)
Oct. 5-8 JMC Analytics 600 LV 45% 21% 20%
Oct. 4-7 Emerson College 467 LV 48 25 19
Oct. 1-7 Market Research Insight 600 LV 51 19 19
Oct. 3-5 JMC Analytics 600 LV 47 22 19
Oct. 1-4 Mason-Dixon 625 LV 45 22 17
Average 47 22 19

Source: Polls

Abraham’s campaign is still touting private polling numbers that are better for him, but the last non-internal poll that showed Abraham leading Rispone was conducted in mid-September. And while you can usually assume that internal polls are skewed in favor of their sponsor, even Abraham’s own polling numbers indicate that Rispone is surging. An Abraham internal poll from June had Abraham ahead of Rispone 34 percent to 8 percent; by late September, that lead had been cut to 2 percentage points.

Whether Abraham or Rispone gets more votes is important because the top two finishers in the jungle primary usually advance to a runoff election, which in this case would be held Nov. 16. But this election may not even require a runoff, because Edwards may very well win it in the first round. (If a candidate wins a majority — 50 percent plus one — in the jungle primary, no runoff is held.) Edwards has averaged 47 percent in polls so far this month, so he just needs high Democratic turnout or a few more people who are undecided to vote for him.

But the GOP has marshaled the cavalry in its effort to keep Edwards under 50 percent of the vote on Saturday. Outside groups, such as the Republican Governors Association, have been hammering Edwards with negative ads, centering in particular on Edwards’s hiring of an aide who was accused of sexual harassment. (The attack is potentially damaging enough that Edwards’s campaign recently released a response ad.) And last week, Vice President Mike Pence held a rally encouraging Louisianans to “elect a Republican to the statehouse” (the White House, however, is not taking sides between Abraham and Rispone). On Friday night, though, the big guns will come out, as President Trump will rally alongside Abraham and Rispone in Lake Charles. In past elections, Trump has taken credit for turning out the Republican base with his rallies, and in such a red state, it could very well help force a runoff. The bad news for Republicans? Edwards has led both Abraham and Rispone in every poll of the hypothetical runoff since June.

We’ll find out on Saturday night whether this race will continue for another month, and if so, who will be joining Edwards in the final showdown.


  1. According to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, which represents the average difference between how a district votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that FiveThirtyEight’s current partisan leans were calculated before the 2018 elections and so do not incorporate the midterm results.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.