Fierce battle over rare Democratic governorship in South

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards fought Saturday to hang on to a rare Democratic governorship in Deep South Trump territory against a national GOP offensive aimed at forcing him into a runoff.

Republicans were trying to hold Edwards under the 50% benchmark the region’s only Democratic governor needed to win outright over five others in the field. President Donald Trump made a last-minute appeal to Louisiana’s voters to reject Edwards.

Edwards, Louisiana’s only Democratic statewide elected official, faced two main GOP challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone. But three lesser-known contenders also could peel off a few percentage points to tip the balance and push Edwards into a Nov. 16 runoff election.

Also on the ballot were six Republican statewide elected officials running for reelection to new four-year terms, and voters were deciding four proposed constitutional changes.

Polls were scheduled to close at 8 p.m.

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.

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.

Dana Johnson voted for Edwards during early voting in the New Orleans area.

“He did a lot for the state. He turned the economy around after Jindal destroyed it,” she said. “He looks like he’s for everybody. He got jobs.”

Republicans panned the governor’s performance, saying Edwards raised taxes too high, stifling economic development and chasing people from Louisiana.

“It’s not a surplus. He overtaxed you. It’s your money,” Abraham said. “We are taxed, taxed, taxed to death.”

The GOP contenders said the Medicaid expansion was rife with abuse, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars. They sought to nationalize the race, tying Edwards to national Democratic leaders, while Abraham and Rispone bickered over which one had tighter ties to Trump.

Abraham, 65, a third-term congressman from rural Richland Parish in northeast Louisiana, touted his background as a doctor. He pledged tax cuts while promising new spending on early childhood education, roads and public safety. He didn’t explain how he would balance the budget with less revenue.

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.

Neither GOP candidate was among the top-tier contenders Republicans had hoped would get in the race. But other, more well-known possibilities passed. With Republicans unable to rally behind one clear choice, they worried that fighting between Abraham and Rispone risked helping Edwards to victory.

In the final week of the campaign, GOP groups reminded voters of Edwards’ former deputy chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, who resigned in 2017 amid allegations of sexual harassment. Anderson’s accuser was prominently featured in one ad, noting that Edwards hired Anderson even though Anderson had previously been accused of sexual misconduct.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

FILE – In this Sept. 19, 2019, file photo, Gov. John Bel Edwards acknowledges his supporters as he comes out onstage for a debate with Eddie Rispone and Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham in Baton Rouge, La. Edwards is battling to hold onto the Democrats’ only governorship in the Deep South. (Bill Feig/The Advocate via AP, Pool, File)
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