Louisiana's Democratic governor John Bel Edwards is distancing himself from ads comparing his Republican opponent Eddie Rispone to white supremacist David Duke.
The radio ads equate both Rispone and President Donald Trump to the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, drawing a sharp rebuke from state Republicans, who called it "desperate campaigning." The Black Organization for Leadership Development, a political action committee, purchased the weekend radio spot. While the Edwards campaign was quick to distance itself from the ads, the governor has in the past endorsed leaders of the PAC for political office.
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The radio ads are the latest flashpoint between the two candidates as they head toward a runoff election that will be held later this month. The race will decide the fate of the only Democratic governor in the Deep South. Trump carried Louisiana by 20 points in 2016.
Jay Banks, who is a New Orleans councilman and the PAC's operations chief, narrates the ad, which targets African-American voters.
"What is the difference between David Duke, Eddie Rispone, and Donald Trump?" Banks says in the ad. "The only difference is that Rispone will be governor if you do not stop him. These people are telling you every day that they do not care about you or anyone who looks like you."
The Edwards campaign told the Washington Free Beacon it neither authorized nor paid for the ad, but Banks defended the message.
"If you look at Donald Trump's rhetoric, if you look at Rispone's platform, and compare it with the platform David Duke has when he ran for multiple offices, it's still pretty much the same thing," Banks said.
The PAC's leadership team has close ties with the governor and the Democratic Party. Edwards endorsed Banks when he was running for city council, the sole endorsement the governor made during the 2017 New Orleans city-level elections. The governor also appointed the PAC's president, Darren Mire, to be a commissioner on a state-level board. The Louisiana Democratic Party also gave $20,000 to the PAC weeks before the ad ran on radio, according to state records.
Banks said that while he is "proudly supporting John Edwards" and had received money from the Democratic Party to run get-out-the-vote drives, his group did not coordinate with Edwards's campaign.
Jason Harbison, the communications director for the state GOP, said that the ad was a clear effort by Edwards's allies to "intimidate African American voters in Louisiana."
"[Banks] is clearly a political ally of the governor," Harbison told the Free Beacon. "While he likes to attempt to wash his hands out of every controversial situation, this is one that is clearly coming from his people trying to benefit him."
Louisiana Republicans have fiercely denounced the advertisement as a smear campaign and pushed back by criticizing Edwards's family history. Some of Edwards's ancestors were segregationist legislators and slaveowners, according to the Washington Times.
"When a candidate knows that they are not going to win … they resort to fear and other types of intimidation tactics and that's what you see right now with the Democrats and John Bel Edwards," Harbison said. "They are trying to drive us apart. They are trying to stoke racial hatred, fears, and divide, hoping that that will motivate their supporters to come to the poll."
The radio push coincided with an anonymous outreach effort that distributed door hangers that also compared Rispone and Trump to Duke. The state GOP has called foul play over the leaflets because it is illegal for PACs to run anonymous political advertisements, according to Louisiana law.
"They popped up around the same time," Harbison said. "They had the same messaging as the radio spot, and even though they don't have ‘paid for by' information on them like it's required, we assume they are coming from the same group."
Banks denied responsibility for the ads, telling the Free Beacon their similarity to his PAC's radio ad was just a "coincidence."