Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' opponents are hoping President Donald Trump may have given one of them just the edge needed to keep Edwards from an outright primary victory in Saturday's election.
With a few tweets and a planned visit, Trump is urging Republicans to vote against the Deep South's only Democratic governor, despite Edwards' repeated efforts to sidestep criticism of the president and talk of his solid rapport with the White House.
Still, Trump posted: "Don't be fooled, John Bel Edwards will NEVER be for us," tying Louisiana's governor to national Democratic Party leaders.
The race's two main Republican gubernatorial contenders — Ralph Abraham, a third-term congressman from rural northeast Louisiana, and Eddie Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman and longtime GOP donor — seized on the tweets, even though neither man got a direct presidential endorsement. Trump called them "both Great."
Abraham and Rispone heralded the president's decision to weigh in on the race and claimed long-term support of Trump, even as they've clashed with each other over whose backing is more sincere.
The tweets — along with a New Orleans-area visit from Vice President Mike Pence at a GOP "unity rally" and Trump's announcement that he intends to hold an election eve event in Louisiana calling for votes against Edwards — spurred political prognosticators and candidates' supporters trying to calculate whether White House interest will change the trajectory of the Louisiana governor's race.
Polls show Edwards well ahead of his competitors, with Abraham and Rispone trying to keep him from winning Saturday without a runoff. In Louisiana, all contenders run on the same ballot regardless of party. If Edwards doesn't top 50% of the vote Saturday, he'll face a head-to-head Nov. 16 matchup against the second-place finisher.
Baton Rouge-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat didn't suggest that the Trump and Pence support for either Abraham or Rispone against Edwards upended the race. But Pinsonat said it could be one more factor that makes it harder for a Democrat to get the cross-party support he needs to win statewide in Louisiana.
The activity, Pinsonat said, is "another reminder to them that they need to stay where they are, they're Republicans, they're Trump voters and don't cross the street and vote for a Democrat."
Edwards has tried to maneuver in a politically tricky space. He doesn't focus on his party affiliation. He tries to talk solely about state issues without getting bogged down in national political feuds that could be land mines for him in a Southern state where Trump is popular, particularly amid a U.S. House Democrats' impeachment inquiry.
The president's criticism of Edwards wasn't exactly precise.
Beyond linking Edwards to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, Trump claimed that Second Amendment rights were "at stake" in the Louisiana governor's race. But Edwards' pro-gun stances line up with Trump's positions on the issue, and with the positions espoused by Abraham and Rispone.
Meanwhile, Republican Party leaders haven't rallied around one specific candidate, keeping the vote splintered and raising questions about whether that keeps the anti-Edwards message fractured.
Pinsonat suggested impeachment is raising Republicans' attention in Louisiana, just like across the nation, and could drive more GOP voters to lodge a protest against the Democratic Party, by choosing someone who's not Edwards.
"There's another threat against the president, and now they're irritated, they're agitated. Is it playing a major influence? No, but it's enough that it's probably getting them interested in voting more than they would have been," the pollster said.
After the president's hit against him on Twitter, Edwards and his campaign team tried to downplay all of it, calling it unsurprising Trump backs members of his own party.
"It was to be expected. The president is tweeting out of Washington. Washington is hyper-partisan. That's the way they function," Edwards said after an endorsement event.
Then, the Democratic governor talked of working with lawmakers across the political aisle and his expectation that Louisiana residents "don't want to go to a situation where everything is strictly partisan." He noted that he's been invited to nine meetings at the White House, to discuss infrastructure, opioids and criminal justice. And he wrapped up by saying he intends to "continue to work well" with the president.
-- Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.