Why Couldn’t Eddie Rispone Beat JBE? First, A Fundamental Strategic Flaw

This will be the first of a series of posts over the next couple of days analyzing the 2019 Louisiana governor’s race, divided into a half-dozen parts covering different aspects of the failure of Eddie Rispone to topple a very beatable Democrat governor in a red state which went heavily Republican in nearly every other race on the ballot.

There will be a lot of analysis of what happened in the race, and most of it will be wrong. This will be spun as a referendum on Donald Trump, a validation of John Bel Edwards, an indication of a coming blue wave across the south, a measuring stick of the Louisiana Republican Party’s performance and even Ralph Abraham’s betrayal. None of those things are particularly valid, and most of them are invalid in total.

Rispone lost because his was the most incompetently-run and corrupt political campaign in a statewide race in the modern history of Louisiana elections, and it wasted a platinum opportunity to flip a gubernatorial seat.

The election was decided by a mere 40,000 votes out of more than 1.5 million cast, and Edwards lost five points from his 56 percent margin four years ago. Despite approval numbers indicating voters didn’t hate him Edwards was eminently beatable. He only got 46.5 percent of the vote in the primary, when voters were first given the option to re-elect him without vetting a challenger in particular.

And this in a cycle which delivered the most conservative Republican legislature in Louisiana history. Some 68 of the 105 seats in the Louisiana House of Representatives will be Republican-held, and 27 of 39 Senate seats will be held by the GOP. Every statewide official but the governor are Republicans and none of them had even a slightly-contested race. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin was the only one taken to a runoff, that he won 59-41 last night, and that only happened because two other Republicans siphoned votes off from him in the primary.

It needs to be understood that a Republican should have won this race, that while it’s always difficult to knock off an incumbent the primary reason that’s true has to do with the difficulty of fundraising as a challenger. Rispone, who put some $14 million of his own money into the race, had no such problem.

So why did Rispone fail? There are a number of reasons, but the first place to start is with the entire premise of the campaign.

That premise had major flaws, and was in fact an insult to the voters of Louisiana.

What was the premise? Not solely the idea that what Louisiana needed was an “outsider,” in that without someone who had no connection to the state’s political process being handed the reins the people of the state aren’t capable of solving their public policy problems, but also that Rispone’s campaign would be data- and poll-driven and “scientific” and thus be able to do things which previous campaigns in Louisiana had not done.

Everything about that notion was unmitigated bullshit. And it was bullshit concocted by a team of out-of-state consultants with no understanding of Louisiana or what wins statewide races here. One of those consultants, Bryan Reed of Chicago, was paid $12,000 per month as the campaign manager. Another, Blake Harris of Birmingham, signed on at the end of last year to be the chief of staff for Tennessee governor Bill Lee; his partners were the initial strategists for the campaign along with Michigan-based Jordan Gehrke. But in April, Gehrke was moved aside in favor of the campaign’s media strategists, Heath and Mallory Thompson of Something Else Strategies of Easley, South Carolina, who charged some relatively exhorbitant prices for TV ads and committed Rispone to a mini-Trump persona. Gehrke disagreed, and ended up on the outs.

It manifested itself in the public launch of the campaign in late July, which consisted of a couple of TV ads starring Rispone and a truck with a Trump bumper sticker and a redneck-y sounding voice blurting out a cheesy “Boom, there it is” tag line.

Rispone’s team never bothered to lead with his biography, which is an extremely attractive one. He’s a self-made multimillionaire businessman and philanthropist who’d spent millions of dollars of his own money trying to give underprivileged kids better educational opportunities. Rispone is very well known as one of the nicer people in Louisiana’s business community and he has a terrific family full of great people.

A well-run campaign, particularly one with more or less unlimited funds to sell a candidate beginning with virtually no name ID to the voters, would lead with that biography and do what it took to make sure every likely voter knew all about Rispone’s history, his family, his charitable work and his business success. Before Rispone talked about policy at all, his campaign should have hammered home the message that he was a man every Louisianan, regardless of political affiliation, could be proud of.

The campaign didn’t do that at all. Instead, they tied him to Donald Trump and insured that was the single most defining characteristic of his presentation.

We’ll talk about why they did it, but first, here’s why it was malpractice to do it.

Yes, like Trump Rispone is a successful businessman entering the political world as a first-time candidate with the ability to self-fund.

Beyond that? The comparison was colossally inappropriate, and not in ways favorable to Rispone.

Make yourself a Trump mini-me, and moderate voters, particularly females in suburban parishes like Jefferson and St. Charles, and in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, will now be predisposed not to vote for you because they will assume you carry all of Trump’s baggage – the boorish behavior, the sexual peccadilloes and so forth. Yes, Trump is a popular political figure in Louisiana, but that’s due to two things: that this is a red state, particularly where national politics is concerned, and that Trump is capable of being highly entertaining on the stump and on TV.

And personality-wise, Rispone is nothing at all like Trump. While the president is bombastic and magnetic and a highly-talented political messenger who can do more damage to his adversaries with a tweet than others could do with $10 million in TV ads, Rispone is a soft-spoken gentleman whose status as a political neophyte couldn’t be made a strength by the freshness of his presentation. While Trump turned the national news media scene on its ear by offering a completely different style of communication than anybody else ever dreamed of doing, Rispone had none of that to offer.

So leading with tying himself to Trump placed a ceiling on his support with many of the people whose votes sunk David Vitter in 2015, and it also made him a disappointment to the Trump fans who fantasized about somebody who could offer that leadership style in Louisiana. Rispone cemented himself as a junior officer in the Trump brigade, and did so for the purposes of climbing above Ralph Abraham into the runoff.

Meanwhile, most voters who were paying attention wondered what all of this Trump-Trump-Trump messaging had to do with Louisiana. For example, what did illegal immigration have to do with the problems of a state whose biggest problem isn’t immigration at all but outmigration?

Why did the campaign do this?

Because the Thompsons had run a mini-Trump campaign for Ron DeSantis in Florida’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, squeaking out a close victory against an unelectable Andrew Gillum, and figured this would be a similar campaign.

It didn’t work. That was clear by the end of the summer.

And despite running through the better part of $10 million, Rispone found himself down several points to Abraham. By then, he’d run through his original consultants and a 24-year old consultant with a very sketchy history by the name of Austin Chambers was brought in to be the campaign’s new general consultant.

And one of Chambers’ first decisions was to uncork a vicious attack ad trashing Abraham along lines initially concocted by Edwards and his allies at Gumbo PAC. Though Rispone did vault past an exhausted and broke Abraham, the effect of that attack ad lingered all the way to Saturday, when turnout in Abraham’s congressional district didn’t rise to the levels needed to match the Democrats’ GOTV – and worse, it appears that Edwards might have gotten as much as 10-15 percent of Abraham’s voters.

The fundamental premise of the campaign was that an “outsider” was needed to save Louisiana, when Rispone wasn’t an outsider but a valued and long-standing member of the state’s business community who had been involved in politics as an activist and donor for years. And that premise was put forth by a team of “outsider” consultants who didn’t know anything about how politics works in this state and more importantly didn’t care.

They cared about getting paid, and for those paychecks they phoned in a recycled message from three years ago aimed at an irrelvant target audience given that this was a gubernatorial, not presidential, campaign. And when questioned about that strategy these grifters lied and claimed they knew more about the electorate than people who had worked with it for decades based on their market research.

This was only one of the major blunders and breaches of faith committed by Rispone’s campaign, but it was the first, and the most substantive one. The campaign presented its candidate in a light that didn’t suit him, because it’s all they knew how to do based on sloppy and lazy research and the sheer arrogance of thinking they were smarter than the local yokels, and when that failed they had no choice but to burn Abraham down and chase off his voters. All it took was 40,000 of them too irritated to turn out for Rispone in the runoff, and he was cooked.

Next up: relationships, or the lack thereof.

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