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Edwards draws first, perhaps significant, foe

Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards drew his first opponent today – certainly not the last, but probably not the winner despite some deep pockets.

Republican Businessman Eddie Rispone filed ethics reports that will allow him to raise money for next year’s contest. Not that he’ll need to haul in some bucks anytime soon, as he says he already has $5 million bankrolled for the effort.

Rispone has helped substantially Republican and conservative causes throughout the years, and recently founded a heretofore low-key effort to counter the Alinskyite Together Baton Rouge, but this represents his first foray for elected office. He eventually will further explain his reasons for running, but for now simply notes that “we can do better” than Edwards.

If that’s his attitude, this isn’t good news for Edwards. As long as GOP candidates together mount a well-funded effort and limit their friendly fire, the incumbent is the underdog. Rispone’s announcement means the party will have the resources already; $5 million directed against Edwards will reveal an awful lot of warts.

Likely Rispone will run quite seriously. Whether he’s in it to win it is another matter. Some will draw obvious parallels to Republican Pres. Donald Trump (except that Trump gave much more across the aisle than has Rispone): a wealthy, politically active businessman with a conservative message in an anti-establishment period, and will think Rispone instantly significant in the contest.

That misreads Louisiana political culture, in the backdrop of a state history of candidates without elected experience, even if they spend a ton of money, faring poorly in runs for the governorship. The personalistic nature of that culture, with its overemphasis on personal relationships built by elected officials, not only deemphasizes party and ideology in vote decisions but also makes it difficult for those who haven’t made extensive connections among activists to run competitively. Inexperienced candidates simply don’t have enough of the oxygen monopolized by campaign veterans to fare well at the highest levels of contests, no matter how much they spend.

As soon as a prominent elected GOP official enters the race, Rispone will be fated to finish behind one or more such opponents, even he if does rack up a nontrivial proportion of the vote. How he reacts in this environment will go a long way towards deciding Edwards’ fate.

If he soldiers on, disseminating campaign communications touting his own merits and pointing out Edwards’ many deficiencies, that spells trouble for the incumbent. Were he instead to attack his fellow Republican challengers, that gives Edwards a reprieve and the chance to pull a double upset. The first approach plays for the team to win; the second goes for broke to win individually but opens the door for the other side to triumph.

If he cares less about him specifically winning and more about making sure his candidacy denies Edwards a second term, his impact on the contest will far outweigh the actual number of votes he draws.

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