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Going all in on Louisiana governor’s race, Trump tries to ‘thread a needle’

‘This is not a Republican Party like it was two or three years ago,’ GOP strategist says

President Donald Trump looks on as Eddie Rispone, the Republican nominee for governor in Louisiana, speaks during a rally last week in Monroe, La. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
President Donald Trump looks on as Eddie Rispone, the Republican nominee for governor in Louisiana, speaks during a rally last week in Monroe, La. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Thursday continues his considerable effort to rally Louisiana Republicans to oust the Democratic governor, making his fourth trip to boost GOP candidate Eddie Rispone.

The attempt to take personal ownership of the contest comes with some risk for Trump, who has already seen control of the House go to the opposite party in the 2018 midterms and a personal pitch to help the Republican governor in Kentucky, a state he won by 30 points in 2016, seemingly come up short last week.

A loss in Louisiana, which Trump carried by 20 points, could lead Republicans on Capitol Hill to begin distancing themselves from the bombastic president as he battles an impeachment effort while seeking reelection. 

Trump has already shown, however, that limits faced by previous presidents do not necessarily apply to him, and he continues to have 90 percent of Republicans nationwide saying they approve of his performance.

“Regardless of what happens in Louisiana, Hill Republicans are going to stand strong with President Trump,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist. “We are roughly a year out from Election Day 2020, and Hill Republicans know their political fortunes are tied to Trump, period.”

Thursday’s trip to Bossier City, Louisiana, is Trump’s last attempt to give Rispone a late-race surge before Saturday’s runoff against Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards. The president has already headlined rallies in Lake Charles and Monroe. He also joined thousands of Louisiana State University fans in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on Saturday to watch the Tigers knock off the host Crimson Tide in what was billed as the biggest college football game of the season.

Trump, as he often does, sent mixed messages last week in Monroe about Rispone’s odds of winning. But before he got to Rispone, the president began by — yet again — celebrating his 2016 Electoral College victory, which included defeating Hillary Clinton in Louisiana, 58 percent to 38 percent.

“I’m really thrilled to be back. This has been an incredible state for Trump, and it has been really incredible,” a beaming president said. “You remember what happened. That wasn’t even a close election, was it? That wasn’t too close.”

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‘Trump country’

When Trump last week summoned Bill Cassidy to address his fellow Louisianians, the Republican senator loudly declared, “This is Trump country.”

“With your help, but only with your help, we can make it Rispone country,” Cassidy roared as the crowd cheered.

[Trump to host Turkey’s Erdogan same day public impeachment hearings start]

All indications are the Rispone-Edwards race will be, in Trump’s words, a very “close election.” It’s not clear Trump’s multiple attempts to shove the wealthy GOP businessman into the end zone will work, though.

Two polls conducted since Oct. 24 have put Edwards up by 2 points. Two others put the incumbent up 3 points. All the results were within the margin of error, signaling a dead heat.

Trump’s ventures to Louisiana stand out among his 2019 travels. He has made several trips to swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina. He did make a pair of trips to Kentucky with hopes of helping Republican Gov. Matt Bevin hold on, but Democrat Andy Beshear declared victory on election night.

No race that drew the president’s attention has merited four trips, however.

‘Next step’

Trump appeared to understand the importance of Saturday’s race as he was revving up supporters in Monroe last week. He described it as the first big step toward his own reelection — and worked to convince voters that his impeachment fight was their fight too.

“The next step to victory begins in this state, and it begins with you right now,” he said. “With your support, we will show the corrupt Democrats — and they are corrupt, do-nothing Democrats — that the American people are not backing down.”

In Monroe, Trump at times seemed to be begging the crowd of supporters wearing “Make America Great Again” merchandise to do anything and everything to reward his pick in the governor’s race.

“We need you to get your friends, get your family, get your neighbors and get out to vote early for Eddie,” he said. “And if you don’t vote early, I will be back on Thursday to get you to vote on Saturday, OK?”

Some in the party see an uphill battle for Rispone on Saturday — and for Trump in less than 12 months.

“This is not a Republican Party like it was two or three years ago,” said one GOP strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly because he advises politicians close to Trump. “Married suburban mothers and seniors are fleeing the party. They’re fleeing Trump.”

“He has to thread a needle very finely from now until Election Day,” the strategist said. “That means Republican candidates do too. … My advice for most of them is to start talking about health care and creating jobs.”

Impeachment intermission

Trump’s Thursday evening rally will come in between House Democrats’ first two public impeachment hearings featuring witnesses who’ve described what they believe was a Trump-orchestrated demand that Ukraine’s new president investigate U.S. Democratic politicians to receive aid that Congress had already approved.

[Road ahead: Public impeachment hearings begin]

In private conversations, White House officials were bracing for the public impeachment hearings — and a likely irritable boss. But some are heartened by polls showing increasing skepticism of the House Democrats’ probe.

A CBS News survey released Tuesday found 52 percent saying they believed Democrats have mishandled the investigation. On another question, 56 percent said the president had also done a poor job handling it.

But Trump has painted the impeachment probe as good for his 2020 chances.

“I do say this … look at our fundraising. The money’s never come in like this. Look at my poll numbers, have been, like, the highest,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in an interview that aired Oct. 21.

David Brady, a political science professor at Stanford, said polling data shows trouble for the president, however. That’s because “you see movement away from the president with independents, even though he’s still solid with his base,” he said.

Other political observers say Republicans like Bevin and Rispone will only inherit Trump’s baggage.

“It is tough to argue that Trump’s intervention in the Kentucky race was successful,” said Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina. “Republicans … must be very uncomfortable with their decision to become so dependent on Trump.”

The president’s inability to help GOP nominees in traditionally red states win gubernatorial and other races, Hetherington said, “speaks volumes.”

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