WASHINGTON — Republicans are hoping President Donald Trump will prove he can still turn out his base in a red state like Louisiana, where the GOP is trying to topple Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards on Saturday.
Trump will hold a rally on Friday night in Lake Charles to urge supporters to vote for either of the two Republican candidates — Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone — who will appear on the ballot alongside Edwards in the state's unusual weekend "jungle primary."
If Edwards clears 50 percent of the vote, he'll win a second term. If he falls short, he'll face the leading Republican in a Nov. 16 runoff election, and polls show it's too close to call.
"I feel like it's 50-50 that we get to 50 (percent) in the first round," said the cautiously optimistic longtime Democratic strategist and Louisiana native James Carville.
Both Republican candidates have aligned themselves tightly with Trump. But it's yet to be seen if the impeachment inquiry in Washington will affect the president's ability to move voters to the poll, and his popularity has dipped a bit in the state since he won it by 20 percentage points in 2016.
"The Donald Trump coming to Lake Charles is not the Donald Trump of a year or year-and-a-half ago. He's in a weakened position," Carville added.
Edwards, a moderate who faced backlash from his own party for signing into law a strict anti-abortion bill this summer, is the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, though the party will have a shot at winning two more governor races next month in Kentucky and Mississippi.
Edwards is counting on backing from those who don't typically vote Democratic, leaning heavily on his Catholic faith and record as an Army Ranger, with ads that show him meeting the Pope, working on his 1966 Chevy pickup truck and receiving praise from local Republicans.
Still, there's an acknowledgment that Trump's visit less than 24 hours before the polls open may boost Republican turnout on a day when the election is competing with a Louisiana State University vs. University of Florida football game.
"He rallies Republicans, he speaks to his base," Lenar Whitney, a former state representative and current member of the Republican National Committee, said of Trump. "That's going to be the battle cry for this election and in future elections in 2020."
While local issues like taxes and flooding dominated much of the race, Republicans have sought to excite their base with broader issues in recent days — even as Democrats have tried hard to avoid nationalizing the race.
Each of the Republican candidates has accused the other of disloyalty to the president, while also attacking Edwards' stewardship of the state's economy.
Abraham appeared on Fox News this week to tout a resolution he introduced in the House to expel Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and he tweeted a "Game of Thrones" parody video that portrays him facing down Pelosi, Edwards, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
"The president deeply cares about Louisiana. Louisiana loves President Trump. It is a match that is literally made in heaven," Abraham said in a debate Wednesday.
Rispone, meanwhile, has portrayed himself as Louisiana's own Donald Trump — a wealthy businessman who went from political donor to politician to shake things up. And he's tried to chip away at Abraham's Trump credentials by highlighting the congressman's criticism of the president after the 2016 release of the "Access Hollywood" tape of Trump talking about sexually assaulting women.
Worries about a lack of Republican unity against Edwards loom large after GOP infighting in 2015 allowed the Democrat to narrowly win the governor's mansion in the first place.
That year, Edwards advanced to a runoff against former Republican Sen. David Vitter, who was kneecapped by a decade-old prostitution scandal. The GOP infighting ran so hot that one of Vitter's Republican rivals ultimately chose to back Edwards instead.
In a debate Wednesday night, the two Republican candidates sniped at each other as much as they did at Edwards, with both accusing the other of advancing "lies" about them.
While some conservatives pushed the GOP to consolidate around one candidate or the other to avoid splitting the vote against Edwards, the party and its biggest players and remained neutral, especially after some better-known Republicans passed on running against Edwards.
Despite the attacks, polls show Edwards remains popular, giving Democrats hope in the red state.
"They've spent millions attacking Gov. Edwards and he still has favorability and approval ratings in the 50s," said David Turner, a spokesperson for the Democratic Governors Association. "His record is more resilient than one presidential visit or one attack ad."
But in the final days of the race, Edwards has been put on to the defensive by sexual misconduct allegations levied at a since-fired top aide made by a former Edwards staffer who is now appearing in TV ads funded by a non-profit group that does not disclose its donors.
Edwards says he fired the former aide immediately, but critics note that same aide had been accused of harassment in a prior job.
The governor panned the attacks as political, telling The Advocate the GOP "got nervous and desperate," but Republicans dismiss that.
"He has his own actions to thank for that — not the vast right-wing conspiracy he's trying to invent," said Republican Governors Association spokesperson Amelia Chassé Alcivar.
With gubernatorial races in Kentucky and Mississippi weeks away, and the 2020 election heating up, Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence also recently visited the state.
"It all starts here," Pence said in Kenner, Louisiana, on Saturday. "And it all starts now."