As President Donald Trump throws all his political weight into swinging a close governor's race in Louisiana, both he and the state's Democratic incumbent have pinned their hopes in part to an improving economy.
Louisiana will decide on Saturday whether to reelect John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. Trump held his third rally of the governor's race Thursday night as Republican Eddie Rispone tries to unseat Edwards. Trump's trips to Louisiana underscore the importance to the GOP of flipping a state that the president carried by 20 percentage points in 2016.
Rispone has hitched his political fate to the president, urging voters in recent days to show "support" for Trump by backing him Saturday. The president, in turn, has cited the state's economic turnaround as a reason to vote Republican.
During a Thursday night rally in Bossier City in northwestern Louisiana, Trump said "America is booming like never before." Ahead of a separate rally for Rispone earlier this month, the White House promoted the "Trump economy in Louisiana" in a pair of tweets, touting job gains, a falling unemployment rate, wage growth and the energy industry.
Edwards has tried to use the White House's promotion of the state's economy to gain an edge. He held a news conference Thursday standing in front of blown up versions of tweets the White House sent last week touting the state.
"They said the Pelican State was booming. He was right," Edwards said, using the state's nickname.
Louisiana's preference for conservative candidates, or social issues such as abortion or gun control, could end up doing more to decide the race than the economy. Still, the outcome could depend in part on whether Trump can successfully claim the economy as his own — and whether voters decide the state has made enough progress during Edwards' first term.
Two recent polls, from Cygnal and Mason-Dixon Polling, found a 2 percentage point edge for Edwards. His lead in both surveys fell within their margins of error. The incumbent is popular despite the state's red hue: 54% of respondents to the Mason-Dixon poll said they approve of the job he is doing, while only 38% disapprove.
In the first round of voting in October, Edwards garnered just under 47% of the vote, falling short of the majority he needed to avoid a runoff with Rispone. One trend ahead of Saturday's voting bodes well for the governor. Early voting has broken a nonpresidential election record for the state, and the share of the ballots cast by black voters has climbed since the first round, according to Sabato's Crystal Ball.
The race appears it could swing either way, which explains why Trump made another stop in Louisiana on Thursday. He has good reason to talk up the economy — which he will need to remain strong for the sake of his own reelection next year.
While Louisiana has struggled relative to the U.S. as a whole, the state's economy has improved during Edwards' first term. Its unemployment rate drooped to 4.3% in September, down from 6.1% in January 2016 (the month the governor took office). The improvement came despite price fluctuations that battered the state's oil industry.
"It was a lot more difficult or heroic than it looked," said Peter Ricchiuti, a professor in the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Driven by New Orleans, the tourism and hospitality industries have helped to spur the state's economy. Spending by visitors rose by nearly 8% in 2018, according to the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.
The natural gas industry also propelled Louisiana during the oil industry struggles. The state produces about 7% of U.S. natural gas, ranking among the top five gas producing states, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Even so, it is tough to attribute the natural gas industry growth to anything Trump has done, according to David Hoaas, a professor of economics at Centenary College in Shreveport. He said technology has driven production more than government decisions have.
"Are some jobs coming back? Yes. Can I directly tie them to the president? I can't per se," Hoaas said.
Edwards has pointed to a few key pieces of his record on the campaign trail. The state estimates it had a budget surplus of about $500 million in the fiscal year that ended in June — the third straight year Louisiana raised more than it spent.
Both Hoaas and Ricchiuti said the state's fiscal discipline seems to have made it a more desirable place to start businesses. The surplus has come with a hike in the Louisiana's sales tax, which rose to 5% from 4% in 2016. Last year, state lawmakers dropped the rate to 4.45%.
Rispone has cast Edwards as a "tax and spend" politician. He has highlighted the fact that Louisiana's economy lags the nation as a whole.
Trey Ourso, a Baton-Rouge based consultant who runs the pro-Edwards Gumbo PAC, contended it may prove tough for Rispone to win by highlighting a flagging economy because of the White House's glowing assessment of Louisiana.
"The Republicans have really had a tough time with it because they're trying to paint a picture of gloom and doom when the fact is the economy in Louisiana is doing better today than it has in many years," he said.
Rispone has also portrayed Edwards as too liberal for the state. Trump, who spent much of Thursday's rally railing against the House impeachment inquiry into whether he abused his power to influence the 2020 election, tied the governor to Democratic leaders in Washington.
Running a red state, Edwards has proven more conservative on social issues than most of his party. He angered liberals earlier this year by signing a law a bill that bans abortion as early as six weeks. The governor has also promoted himself as pro-gun.
If the race does come down to the state's economic standing, voters may have cast their ballots more because of anti-Edwards sentiments than pro-Rispone ones. Ricchiuti and Hoaas said the Republican has put more energy into running against the incumbent's record rather than detailing his own economic vision for the state.
"If you favor the Republican candidate on economic grounds, it's probably because you're opposed to the Democratic candidate on economic grounds, even if you don't know what the replacement is," Hoaas said.