Louisiana Spotlight: Rispone uses different strategy in campaign
BATON ROUGE — As he runs for Louisiana governor, Republican candidate Eddie Rispone is bypassing the conventional gubernatorial campaign approach, skipping the hand-shaking and speech events and focusing almost entirely on TV ads and social media outreach.
If Rispone reaches the Governor’s Mansion, he could upend political strategy in future statewide races, shifting more campaigns to a partisan, presidential race style that largely avoids face-to-face contact with voters and limits state-specific detail on issues.
The wealthy Baton Rouge businessman is one of two major Republican contenders seeking to oust Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards, along with U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Richland Parish. The full list of candidates on the Oct. 12 ballot will become certain this week, when the three-day election signup period is held.
A hallmark of Louisiana’s races for governor has involved retail politicking: visits with influential groups, appearances at festivals and parades, statewide tours and drop-ins at small town lunch locations. Voters often have been able to see their candidates in person.
Abraham and Edwards are embracing that approach as part of their campaigns, but not Rispone. He’s attended GOP-focused events and appeared before conservative audiences, but other more general appearances have been limited.
Rispone’s TV ads so far focus entirely on his support for President Donald Trump, rather than state-specific issues — and his social media presence largely mimics the approach, focusing on national politics and linking Edwards to national Democratic leaders.
“The personal touch that we think of from an Edwin Edwards or someone who would be really out there, going back to Huey Long, who would go out there and barnstorm and reach people personally, I think that’s a thing of the past,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor and associate dean at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
“I’m not saying that style of campaigning is dead, but I do think that style of campaigning is less effective in the modern era,” Cross said.
The extent of Rispone’s absence from the traditional campaign trail was obvious Thursday. He skipped two of the higher-profile events gubernatorial candidates typically attend, forums held by the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and the Louisiana Municipal Association. The groups hold significant political sway, packed with elected officials who are prominent in their communities.
Abraham and Edwards squared off against each other, while Rispone was a no-show. His campaign said the businessman had a scheduling conflict, without explaining further.
“I don’t know how I could say I wanted to be governor and I didn’t want to go talk to the sheriffs, that I want to be governor and I don’t want to go talk to the Louisiana Municipal Association,” Edwards said.
Critics suggest Rispone, a first-time candidate who has donated to conservative causes for years, is trying to buy the governor’s office. He’s largely self-financed his campaign, putting in $10 million of his own money, and he’s committed to spending $5 million on TV ad time.
While Edwards has the money to compete with Rispone, Abraham has far less cash in his campaign account. Abraham didn’t directly criticize Rispone’s absence from the recent forums, but his campaign took a back-handed swipe at the strategy.
“Ralph Abraham will continue taking every opportunity possible to debate John Bel in public forums,” Abraham political consultant Lionel Rainey said in a statement. “But more than that, he wants voters to see him in person, shake his hand and look them in the eye when he asks for their vote. This race is too important to do anything less.”
Of course, with less money, Abraham can’t compete with the advertising Rispone can afford. Abraham hasn’t yet aired a TV ad, so endorsements and face-to-face appearances are essential to his efforts to bypass Rispone and reach a November runoff with Edwards.
In Louisiana, all candidates run against each other on the same ballot. If no one tops 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters advance to the runoff.
One governor’s race tradition in which Rispone appears likely to participate is the statewide TV debate. Three debates are scheduled, starting in mid-September. Rispone spokesman Anthony Ramirez said Rispone anticipates participating in all three.
“We look forward to debating Ralph and John Bel,” Ramirez said.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte