The president lost two of three gubernatorial elections in conservative Southern states, raising questions about his standing heading into 2020.
President Donald Trump campaigned hard in three conservative Southern states this fall, aiming for a string of gubernatorial wins that would demonstrate his political strength heading into impeachment and his own reelection effort.
The plan backfired in dramatic fashion.
The latest black eye came on Saturday, when Trump’s favored candidate in Louisiana, multimillionaire businessman Eddie Rispone, went down to defeat. The president went all-in, visiting the state three times, most recently on Thursday. Earlier this month, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin lost reelection after a similar presidential effort on his behalf. Of the candidates Trump backed, only Tate Reeves in Mississippi won.
The losses raise questions about Trump’s standing as he heads into what will be a grueling 2020 campaign. By throwing himself into the three contests — each in states that Trump won by double-digits in 2016 — the president had hoped to gain a modicum of political momentum at a perilous moment of his presidency.
Those close to the president argue that he can’t be faulted for the Kentucky and Louisiana outcomes. Bevin was one of the country’s least popular governors, while Rispone was a relatively unknown political newcomer who was facing a popular incumbent in Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. While the president can help, they contend, he can’t always be expected to pull flawed candidates over the finish line.
But Trump attempted to turn each contest into a referendum on himself — especially Louisiana. Earlier this week, the president pleaded with rally-goers to dump Edwards.
“In two days, I really need you, but you really need you, to send a message to the corrupt Democrats in Washington,” he said. “They are corrupt. They are crazy, crazy.”
After the Kentucky defeat, the president added, much was riding on Louisiana.
“So, Trump took a loss,” the president said, referring to Bevin’s defeat. “So you got to give me a big win, please. OK? OK?”
Trump’s activity in the Louisiana contest was particularly extensive: In addition to the rallies, he called into conservative radio stations on Rispone’s behalf, recorded get-out-the-vote robocalls and videos, and sent out a stream of tweets savaging Edwards. On Saturday, the president wrote several tweets encouraging Louisianans to cast their ballots for Rispone.
Trump’s political operation also invested heavily, with the Republican National Committee spending $2 million on the race. The president took a personal interest in the contest, quizzing aides and allies about developments.
During an appearance on a Louisiana radio program Friday, Vice President Mike Pence remarked that “the president and I have left it all on the field.”
Rispone was just as aggressive in attaching himself to the president, largely forgoing public appearances in favor of a high-dollar, Trump-centic TV advertising campaign. This summer, he ran spots in which he proudly proclaimed that he donated to the president in 2016 and even put a Trump bumper sticker on his truck. In the final weeks leading up to the election, he aired ads featuring footage of the president ripping Edwards.
The Louisiana defeat intensified concerns from some in the president’s orbit that he spent too much political capital on the three off-year, non-federal races. Some people close to the president worried that he would take the brunt of the blame for losses and that winning each of the races was an extraordinarily tall order. Other Republicans were surprised that the president held a last-minute rally on Thursday night given that the race wasn’t a sure thing.
Louisiana was especially difficult, despite its conservative tilt. Edwards has a record as a staunchly conservative Democrat. And critics of Rispone’s campaign contend that his reliance on TV ads as opposed to in-person events made it exceedingly difficult for the president to drag him to victory. Other senior Republicans described a haphazard campaign operation that often seemed to lack a clear message and strategy.
“This loss has nothing to do with President Trump. He wasn’t on the ballot,” said Lionel Rainey, a Louisiana-based GOP consultant who worked for Rispone’s primary opponent, GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham. “It’s up to the candidate to convince the majority of voters to vote for him. Rispone’s campaign failed to do that.”
“Simply aligning yourself with another politician, even the president, isn’t enough,” added Rainey.
John Couvillon, a Louisiana-based pollster who typically works with Republicans, said an array of local challenges made Trump’s rescue mission hard. Rispone had struggled to win over Abraham supporters, and Edwards succeeded in driving up minority turnout.
“There’s a heightened expectation that just because Trump appears [for] a Republican candidate, that the Republican candidate can win,” Couvillon said.
Perhaps Trump’s biggest challenge was convincing Louisianans to turn on Edwards, whom he repeatedly derided as a “radical liberal.”
Edwards, who opposes abortion rights and favors gun rights, handled Trump gingerly. He avoided criticizing the president and instead chose to highlight the visits he made to the White House during Trump’s tenure. At one point this year, Edwards even ran a TV ad promoting an upcoming presidential visit to the state.
Edwards, whom Trump dubbed “the failed far-left man” during his Thursday rally, gave the president a shout-out in his victory speech.
“Our shared love for Louisiana is always more important than the partisan differences that sometimes divide us,” Edwards told supporters. “And as for the president: God bless his heart.”