BATON ROUGE — Louisiana's Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone said Monday that a radio ad linking him and President Donald Trump to former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke is "disgusting," and he's using it to rally support from pro-Trump voters.
In response to the Duke-themed advertising, the state Republican Party also invoked race in the tight competition for governor, saying Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards comes from a family that "has been racist for generations." Edwards countered that he has consistently fought for equal opportunities.
Rispone blamed Edwards for the advertising by the New Orleans-based Black Organization for Leadership Development, or BOLD.
There's no evidence Edwards, the Deep South's only Democratic governor, is connected to the effort. Both an Edwards spokesman and the BOLD member featured in the advertising said the governor's campaign wasn't involved.
One of several radio spots the organization's PAC is running, the ad encourages minority voters to "vote against hatred" by choosing Edwards.
"What is the difference between David Duke, Eddie Rispone and Donald Trump? The only difference is that Rispone will be governor if you don't stop him. These people are telling you every day that they do not care about you or anyone who looks like you," New Orleans Councilman Jay H. Banks says in the ad.
Trump supports Rispone, who built his campaign on his backing of the president and has responded with his own radio ads claiming that Edwards supporters hate Trump.
As the back-and-forth intensified, the state GOP released an email Monday criticizing Edwards and his backers for "stoking fear and racial tensions" and linking to conservative news sites' descriptions of Edwards' family as slave owners before the Civil War and his grandfather as a segregationist state lawmaker.
"The actions of my ancestors before I was born, if true, do not in any way reflect my views," Edwards replied in a statement.
His campaign provided comments from state Rep. Randal Gaines, who leads the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus and defended Edwards' record against what he called a "smear campaign."
Early voting continues through Saturday in the Nov. 16 election.
At an early voting stop Monday, Rispone accused Edwards and his backers of "playing the race card." His campaign is trying to use the attack spots to energize Trump supporters against the Democratic incumbent.
"It's disgusting. The governor has to answer for that," Rispone said.
Rispone's ads play excerpts of BOLD radio spots that slam Trump and connect them both to Duke, a Republican former Louisiana state lawmaker who's made failed bids for other offices in the state.
In one Rispone response ad, a narrator says: "That's how far the radical left will go to keep liberal John Bel Edwards in power. And if you don't agree they'll call you a racist." The ad urges voters to vote against Edwards and "his Trump hating friends." The other ad says Edwards is "too weak to stop these hateful attacks, too cowardly to condemn them."
Edwards spokesman Eric Holl said the BOLD advertising was "not paid for or authorized by the John Bel Edwards campaign." But Edwards hasn't directly denounced the messaging.
Trump has targeted Edwards for ouster, planning a Wednesday rally for Rispone in Monroe. Edwards has steered clear of criticizing a president who won Louisiana by 20 percentage points and remains popular, instead saying he's worked well the White House and will continue to do so.
The BOLD ads, most of which feature Banks, seek to drum up support for Edwards from anti-Trump voters. One asks voters to "remember that sickening feeling you got when you woke up and realized Donald Trump was elected president." Another tells voters they "can send a message directly to Trump that his politics of lies and hate won't work here."
Banks said the Edwards campaign wasn't involved in the ads. Banks defended the advertising and tying Rispone to Duke, saying that Rispone's campaign approach has mirrored Duke's unsuccessful 1991 campaign for governor.
"I don't know why Mr. Rispone's mad. What are we saying that's not true?" Banks said. "David Duke ran on a very similar platform to what he's running on, anti-New Orleans, anti-Medicaid, anti-anything that helps people who aren't rich."
Banks said Rispone has embraced a president with "white supremacist views" and is trying to vilify New Orleans and minorities by repeatedly calling New Orleans a "sanctuary city."
Beyond the radio ad, a door-hanger that the Rispone campaign and a Republican state senator said has been circulated to households also links Rispone and Trump to Duke. It's unclear who paid for that advertising. Banks said BOLD wasn't involved in the effort.
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