On Thursday of last week, Eddie Rispone was booked to appear on the Walton & Johnson Show, which is on every morning across the state on iHeart Radio talk stations. Walton & Johnson is the most frequently-listened to morning show in Louisiana, and while it’s largely a comedy show covering culture more than politics, its leanings are most definitely conservative and its audience is absolutely perfect for a candidate like Eddie Rispone.
But at the last minute the appearance was canceled.
On the air in discussing the cancellation, the hosts said it was Rispone’s “out of state consultants” who decided not to have him appear. In a conference call with campaign stakeholders, general consultant Austin Chambers was heard to have said that an appearance on Walton & Johnson “doesn’t play into our messaging.” Listeners were flabbergasted. Chambers said it was important to “hammer our base” with the campaign’s message, but the Walton & Johnson audience was almost completely tailor-made for doing just that.
The Walton & Johnson debacle was dumbfounding, but it shouldn’t have been. The difficulty of booking Rispone for TV and radio interviews had long since turned into a running joke among Louisiana’s political insiders and purveyors of electronic media, and scrapes like the one with Walton & Johnson had been a staple of the campaign. A last-minute cancellation on the KEEL morning show in Shreveport with hosts Robert J. Wright and Erin McCarty ruffled feathers during the primary. Repeated difficulties in getting Rispone on the Moon Griffon Show were finally resolved two weeks before the runoff; he appeared twice. In Baton Rouge, Talk 107.3’s morning host Brian Haldane struggled to land Rispone as a guest. On two separate occasions the campaign rebuffed interviews with KTBS-TV in Shreveport while visiting that city. Syndicated radio host Michael Berry couldn’t get Rispone on his air. There were even Fox News appearances canceled by the campaign. And on, and on.
There was a definitive sense that the campaign was hiding the candidate from the state’s media, and perhaps at the beginning of the campaign Rispone wasn’t ready to assume the persona of a politician running for office. But by April, when he was giving public speeches Rispone was perfectly capable of getting a message across. If he wasn’t good in interviews, the only way to remedy that was for him to do them, particularly early in the campaign when the voters weren’t really paying attention, and suffer through the growing pains in what would essentially be the preseason.
Not doing so meant that late in the campaign, Rispone appeared on a talk show in Alexandria and said something which caused a stir in the race which did not help him win. Amid a discussion of false statements made by Gov. John Bel Edwards, Rispone was asked about Edwards’ past as a West Point cadet and an Army officer, and his unscripted response was that he thought Edwards had damaged West Point’s reputation, and that West Point likely wasn’t interested in turning out trial lawyers who lie in pursuit of political power.
That statement was defensible, but off message. If you haven’t served in the military and you’re running against someone who has, you acknowledge and appreciate your opponent’s service and then you move past it because most people recognize it isn’t relevant to the pursuit of civilian elective office. Edwards was able to inflate Rispone’s statement into an attack on all veterans, a ridiculous stretch that didn’t particularly resonate, either, while Rispone’s camp hunkered down and hoped the controversy would go away. It did, thanks to the fact the statement was made on a Friday and the weekend washed out the hubbub.
But the West Point mistake pointed out the effect of a poorly-handled candidate. Had Rispone blurted out that criticism in April, few would have remembered it and he would have learned to refine his presentation so that if he was going to drop that bomb later it would have been part of a strategy by the campaign. A trap could have been laid for Edwards with the West Point honor code as bait, and when Edwards waded in there could have been a host of surrogates – there are a good many highly-decorated retired military officers living in Louisiana and active in Republican politics, and several of them are very impressive communicators – ready to support Rispone and back Edwards down.
But Rispone’s campaign wasn’t capable of setting traps like that. It wasn’t capable of getting earned media victories at all, and it almost never even competed for a news cycle. The campaign didn’t stage press events where it had golden opportunities to do so. It rarely, and we do mean rarely, issued press releases presenting policy initiatives or other meaningful messaging.
Anthony Ramirez was the campaign’s communications director, but the campaign did scant little in the way of communications. Ramirez, by the end, was more of a body man for Rispone than he was a voice for the campaign. Several of the state’s reporters, who for certain lean left and were never going to be particularly friendly to the campaign, openly remarked about how difficult it was to get Ramirez on the phone to provide the campaign’s position on this issue or that when they were preparing articles on various topics. By the end of the campaign they’d stopped trying and wouldn’t disseminate Rispone’s message when it needed to get out. The lack of outreach to Louisiana reporters was one thing, but when the campaign failed to build relationships with, for example, James Varney at the Washington Times or Matt Boyle at Breitbart it was clear that this was more than just an ideological divide at play.
Which was one reason why Edwards was able to get away with a litany of lies about what Rispone would do as governor during the runoff. The campaign wasn’t poised and didn’t have the media access to counter them, and was instead reduced to writing letters to stakeholders, which it posted on social media, debunking Edwards’ lies. That tactic was ineffective, and the interest groups at which the lies were aimed generally went for Edwards in great numbers.
The campaign had problems with leadership from the start, as Rispone’s original concept fell apart very early on. It was to be modeled on the success of Bill Lee in Tennessee, a terrific candidate who, like Rispone, was a self-made businessman who navigated a tough GOP primary on his way to a big gubernatorial win in 2018. Rispone was to hire Lee’s consultant Blake Harris, but the latter ended up as Lee’s chief of staff and couldn’t manage Rispone’s campaign. For a while the campaign’s leader was Michigan-based consultant Jordan Gehrke, but we’re told he was sidelined in late spring for not being fully on board with the mini-Trump persona its media strategists, the Easley, South Carolina-based firm Something Else Strategies, had crafted.
Eventually it fell to Chambers, a 24-year old wunderkind who somehow ended up as the general consultant for the campaign despite serving as chair of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a political action committee whose purview is supposed to be down-ballot offices in state elections and not governor’s races – that is the Republican Governors’ Association’s job. Chambers was also supposed to be heading up the Republican Party’s efforts to hold the majority in the Virginia state legislature, something which was a complete disaster, and virtually his first decision as general consultant for Rispone was to attack Ralph Abraham using messaging first trotted out by Edwards’ Democrat allies at Gumbo PAC – a decision which turned out to be a self-inflicted wound that bled away vital Abraham votes to their couches and even to Edwards in the runoff.
But the Abraham attacks weren’t the only bad moves Chambers made. The campaign shut out virtually all of the stakeholders Rispone needed to build a winning coalition. Things got so bad, we heard, that two weeks ago on a call with major donors Sen. Sharon Hewitt raised a few concerns about messaging and Chambers cut her off, claiming the connection had been lost.
That environment had to have played into the failure of the campaign to conduct any outreach to local Republican groups and leaders. The campaign received only two endorsements from local Republican Parish Executive Committees, the leaders of which commonly expressed consternation about Rispone refusing or neglecting to meet with them. Republican activists complained at their calls going unanswered. The campaign didn’t even print enough yard signs for volunteers to supply to donors until very late in the game, something Ted Cruz’ experience in 2018 should have remedied for all Republican candidates in the future.
Rispone’s campaign took few endorsements in the primary, partially because it did a poor job of soliciting them and even sometimes chased them away. Black conservative radio host C.L. Bryant offered to endorse Rispone and was told not to make that endorsement public; exit polls reported Rispone with less than five percent of the African-American vote in the runoff.
The campaign never mastered simple optics. The most obvious case of this we’ve already covered, namely that in two separate Trump rallies for Rispone in North Louisiana there was never a photo opportunity for Rispone and Ralph Abraham to appear together and present a unified Republican front. But even on the final day of the campaign, when Rispone traveled across the state, the optics were suspect – he took a private plane and landed at private airfields in all the state’s markets, which only solidified himself as an out-of-touch rich guy. That same day John Bel Edwards was sign-waving in inner-city New Orleans.
And basic structural issues, the kinds of things campaign manager Bryan Reed should have been expected to handle, went unaddressed. Reed, a 27-year old from Arlington Heights, Illinois, was described as an “empty suit” by more than one Hayride source familiar with the inner workings of the campaign. His attention to detail was questionable at best. For example, the Rispone campaign didn’t even have a plan to hire poll-watchers until right before the deadline to submit the list to the Secretary of State, occasioning a last-minute call with the state GOP in order to scare up a few. LAGOP volunteers conducting a door-knocking campaign to get out the vote reported running out of Rispone campaign literature with two days left in the campaign because they weren’t sent enough; they walked neighborhoods with pushcards from Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s campaign and not Rispone’s. Rispone campaign offices throughout the state were described as places where “kids made $3,000 per month playing video games all day,” due to a lack of direction and activity.
The primary evidence Reed was alive came on Twitter, which wasn’t altogether a good thing for the campaign.
By the measure of sheer nuts-and-bolts campaigning, without even addressing upper-level items like messaging or policy, this was a grossly incompetent campaign staffed by well-paid but incompetent people. And it was a shame, because as we’ll note in our final postmortem report Rispone as a candidate might have been able to shine with better management.