MONROE, Louisiana — Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA) wants to be elected Louisiana’s first governor from the northern part of the state in decades, and despite being outspent on the airwaves by his opponents, with a media establishment desperate to sink him, he has a unique advantage in attempting to pull off the feat.
Abraham flies himself and key staff around the state in small airplanes and helicopters he owns.
To get there, Abraham is going to have to beat two different swamps in American politics: the one here in Louisiana, and the one up in Washington, D.C.
The race has national implications for President Donald Trump, who is currently facing an impeachment inquiry from national House Democrats that could very well set the stage for what happens next across the country. While Trump has not yet endorsed in the Louisiana governor’s race, the president’s and Abraham’s destinies are intertwined in the deep red south, as both battle entrenched interests seeking to prevent them from delivering radical structural and economic change for their constituents—Trump’s nationally, and Abraham’s would-be statewide constituents in Louisiana.
Abraham invited Breitbart News along for a weekend on the campaign trail with him in Louisiana at the beginning of September for a series of campaign stops that had him ranging from a Thursday night event in Baton Rouge, a Friday morning event an hour away from there, then on to Hurricane Dorian volunteer relief efforts in New Orleans later that morning before heading up to a dove hunt here in Monroe Friday night in the northern-most part of the state.
Abraham appeared Saturday afternoon at a gator hunt back in south Louisiana hosted by the state’s beloved Attorney General Jeff Landry, then back to Baton Rouge before heading down to New Orleans again the next morning.
In other words, he’s a whirlwind of a campaigner and can hit the ground hard running—a strategy that’s been working as he has edged out his GOP challenger for key endorsements from local GOP executive committees to build out a machine in the state. He’s won endorsements from the Republican Party executive committees in several Louisiana parishes, including St. Tammany, Jefferson, Rapides, St. Charles, Bossier, and St. Landry Parish.
“Without the airplane, without the helicopter, we couldn’t touch one half of the people that we touch,” Abraham told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview on the ground at the gator hunt. “So to have that available, and to have me flying it where I can personally just jump in and go, I don’t think you can put a price on it. That will, as much as anything, help us win the election.”
His plane, a Cirrus SR22, is a small four-seater. He’s got an even smaller plane too for shorter jaunts, and he’s got an Airbus Eurocopter helicopter—and a landing strip at his home in northern Louisiana. Louisiana’s network of dozens of small airports across the state, and the fact that “Doc” flies himself everywhere, makes it easy for the congressman to traverse the state quickly and hit multiple events in a single day–more than he otherwise would be able to if he traveled on the ground by car alone.
For instance, when Breitbart News met up with him on Thursday, Sept. 5, at a candidate forum in Baton Rouge, we stayed the night there. The next morning, Abraham had another event an hour away at 7:30 a.m. By 10:00 a.m., we were in New Orleans at a waste management facility where he helped local volunteers pack pallets of food and medical supplies to send to Hurricane Dorian victims in the Bahamas, before we ended up in Monroe, hundreds of miles away, on Friday night for a dove hunt reception.
After staying that night in Monroe, the next morning we fly down to Hammond, Louisiana—which would be at least a three-hour drive by ground, but in Abraham’s plane it takes just under one hour—which allows the congressman time to go over his planned remarks before heading out to secure the St. Tammany parish GOP executive committee endorsement nearby. Then, it’s up into the helicopter to fly over to the FBO in Lafayette, Louisiana, for a quick stop before taking off to head over to Landry’s gator hunt.
Abraham had just moments before this interview landed his helicopter on the levee on the other side of a body of swamp water from which Landry tells me hunters pulled out more than 100 alligators this year. After hopping down from the chopper with the rotors still turning and dust flying up in the air amid the Marine One-style landing in the swamp—his co-pilot had to head back to the local Fixed-Base Operator (FBO) to refuel for a longer flight out of the hunt later—Abraham, one of his staffers, and I head over to a tent where there’s a fan boat waiting to ferry us to the other side of the swamp.
“Aren’t you Ralph Abraham?” asked a woman who, along with her daughter, joined us on the fan boat ride across the swamp. She approached the congressman and asked the staffer with us to snap a picture of her and her daughter with the would-be governor.
Moments like these happen all weekend up and down Louisiana, in a state where Abraham’s political celebrity has been on the rise all year as the governor’s race heats up. People in Louisiana are watching, and paying close attention to, this race as a precursor to 2020 nationally. But more importantly for Abraham, statewide his name recognition is on the rise, giving him a shot at winning the race. For someone from the north part of the state that’s not too shabby.
If you look at a map of Louisiana, a mid-sized city named Alexandria splits the state in two right where the top of the state’s boot-like shape meets the bottom of the boot-like shape. Louisiana’s last governor from north of Alexandria was Buddy Roemer—who happened to have a bit of a base in Baton Rouge despite his roots in Shreveport—who was elected in 1988.
Roemer’s origins began in Shreveport, which is way up to the top left part of Louisiana. But Roemer had spent a lot of time down in Baton Rouge before his successful “Roemer Revolution,” which swept him into the governor’s mansion on a mission to combat corruption related to perennial Democrat governor Edwin Edwards’ multiple stints in the office.
Edwin Edwards, to whom current Louisiana Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards has no known relation, served three different stints in the governor’s mansion—including immediately preceding and succeeding Roemer’s tenure—making the Roemer comparison a little bit more complicated.
The last true northern Louisiana governor was John McKeithen, a Democrat, who won the office in 1964, coming from Columbia, a small town more in Abraham’s neck of the woods than Roemer’s Shreveport is.Since then, for 55 years, Louisiana has not elected a governor truly from the north part of the state.
“That is correct—or McKeithen,” Abraham tells me when I ask about Roemer and how it’s been decades since Louisiana has elected a governor from north of Alexandria. “Roemer was from the north, but he also had a base in Baton Rouge, so he had a little bit of leg room. McKeithen was probably the last true northern governor.”
Just the nature of where the population centers are in Louisiana—most people live in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in the southernmost part of the state along the I-10 corridor—makes it more difficult for someone from upstate to win. But being from the upstate has its slight advantages, in that Abraham has a clear base of support from which to build and just has to add extra backing from elsewhere down south.
Abraham’s style of politics is interesting, in that he definitely has no problems throwing punches politically on fire and brimstone issues. He hit Edwards hard repeatedly in his interviews with Breitbart News here on the ground. But he also fits the bill of an old-school public servant removed from the nonstop partisan bickering on Twitter, dedicated to helping his community.
On Friday morning before we flew up to Monroe, when we met in New Orleans at IV Waste’s facilities, Abraham and his wife came in to speak to volunteers packing boxes of medical supplies to put on pallets to ship along with pallets of food to the Bahamas for Hurricane Dorian relief
Days earlier, Abraham had flown straight into the eye of Hurricane Dorian as it neared the Bahamas with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Hurricane Hunters late Monday night before flying home to see patients Tuesday morning at his clinic back in Louisiana—then heading straight to a campaign rally with a crowd of hundreds. He was up for 36 hours straight, one staffer told me.
“I flew into Dorian on Monday,” Abraham told the volunteers packing the boxes at IV Waste. “We went right into the eye, and the eye was right over the Bahamas and we were able to look down. Those waves looked like they were overlapping the island. So, people are going to be hurting for a long, long time. So I greatly appreciate what you are doing. We’re going to take a few pictures and we’re going to send them to the president, and send them to the press. We’re going to highlight what Louisiana is doing for hurricane relief, and just know that we thank you and the nation thanks you, but I assure you I have flown missions to the islands before, and just know what you’re doing is going to save lives. What you’re doing here—they don’t have formula, they don’t have diapers, they don’t have anything. So what you’re doing is phenomenal and know it will be very, very well-received and appreciated. So thank you.”
After making those brief remarks to the dozens of volunteers from the local Oschner hospital and getting a tour of the elaborate operation inside, Abraham and his wife Dianne joined the volunteers to pack the boxes with them.
Julie Ricks, an IV Waste salesperson handling logistics in this packed warehouse, tells me that they are sending 35,000 meal boxes and another 13 or more pallets full of medical supplies to the Bahamas to help with Hurricane Dorian response.
“Right now, we are sending a total of roughly 35,000 meals,” Ricks said. “When I say that, it doesn’t mean 35,000 boxes. We have boxes on a pallet, some pallets have 36 boxes, 48, it depends on the size of the boxes—each box contains roughly about 18 meals. When I say meals, in a survival mode, a granola bar is considered a meal. We made sure they had enough protein, enough carbs, that they had some fruit items, some sugar, some things like that. We made sure they had enough of what they absolutely needed, and then we had a lot of extra little things to keep them going. So each box has 18 meals, so if you got a family of four you got four meals each—if you only have two people in your family you got 9 meals—however you want to stretch it out.”
“As far as medical is concerned, we have around 13 pallets of medical,” Ricks added. “Depending on what size of the boxes again, the pallets are going to be about 36 to 38 boxes per pallet. We’re going to have 13-plus pallets of medical supplies.”
The meal boxes include things like tuna, vienna sausage, spam, fruit cups, apple sauce cups, granola bars, cereal boxes, packs of flour tortillas, fruit juices, and peanut butter. The medical boxes include things like IV fluids, non-sterile gloves, dressing-change kits, blood pressure cuffs, and stethoscopes.
Matt Boyle/Breitbart News
Sidney Torres, the founder of IV Waste and a bit of a local New Orleans business celebrity, funded about three quarters of the operation. In this facility where Abraham and his wife are touring—and volunteering—volunteers are packing the boxes onto pallets to load them onto waiting trucks to ship the pallets to Miami, where Torres has a cargo plane waiting to fly these over to the Bahamas.
“When we started, we started the whole funding of the food part of this,” Ricks said. “Also, Mr. Torres has cargo planes in Miami that he’s utilizing for a contractor project—that’s been put on hold. He’s physically paying for every plane to leave Miami and go to the Bahamas. He’s paying out of his pockets.”
Torres, who’s here and helping load the boxes too like any one of the other volunteers, is so humble he doesn’t even want personal credit for helping the Hurricane Dorian victims.
“I don’t need to be recognized,” he tells me. “You can just mention the company’s name—I don’t need to be in there.”
Outside IV Waste, before heading back up to Baton Rouge, Abraham told me he wanted to help this hurricane relief effort because it shows what so many in Louisiana have been through with hurricanes.
“It shows that Louisianans, we’ve been where the Bahamas are,” Abraham said. “We’ve been through many, many hurricanes and we’ve been through many natural disasters. We know what it takes to survive in those environments. They are literally saving lives every day. I’m going to say [to the president], look what Louisiana is doing for less fortunate people who got hit by Hurricane Dorian. This is the salt and the light right here. The president needs to know it. The president loves Louisiana, and Louisianans love President Trump. So it’s a match made in heaven. We’re going to show him what he already knows, and that’s that Louisianans are good, good people.”
Friday night here in Monroe, Abraham’s home turf up north, the congressman gets a rock star’s reception at a dinner the night before Democrat State Sen. Francis Thompson’s famed annual dove hunt. Everyone here knows him, and he’s mingling with his friends and allies from long before he was ever elected to Congress. Down the street is the office where former Rep. Vance McAllister (R-LA)—the “kissing congressman”—was caught on video kissing an aide, leading to his resignation and the opening of the seat and a special election that Abraham won, setting him on this path of a would-be governor.
Thompson is not your ordinary Democrat, like who you see on national television. He’s served in the Louisiana state legislature since 1975, representing state House district 19 from 1975 until 2008, when he was elected to represent district 19 in the state Senate. He’s shifting back over to run for his old House district this year. But at this event, there is no partisan animosity. Republicans and Democrats mingle freely together here in north Louisiana, eating all sorts of different fried catfish and gumbo. And, then, after awhile, Thompson grabs a microphone and stands up at the front of the room with a sheet of paper and begins reading off the names of almost everyone there to thank them for coming.
Then, this old-school Democrat does something remarkable: He invites the Republican candidate for governor who’s there, Abraham, up to the stage to speak at his event—providing a forum for Abraham to campaign—something unheard of on the national level in American politics.
“My dear friend Congressman Ralph Abraham,” Thompson said. “Come on up here… he’s running for governor if you didn’t know that. That’s a joke too… He’s a dear friend, too… We’ve got all kinds of connections, and I’ve always been very proud of Ralph and his ethics and his standup ability and his smartness.”
Abraham comes up and keeps it short, as he’s more into mingling with his hometown team of supporters around the venue.
“Thank you for serving Louisiana in a most remarkable and phenomenal way,” Abraham says to Thompson. “Francis mentioned the gubernatorial campaign—Dianne and I, today, have been to six different cities. You all know, of course, I got my plane and that makes it easier.”
Abraham was hardly the only Republican to come to Thompson’s dove hunt reception. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), the U.S. Senator who is outspoken and brash with the establishment, is here too, but slips out before Breitbart News gets a chance to talk to him, as does Louisiana’s Agriculture Commissioner Michael Strain.
“Doctor Abraham and I have worked together for many years, as he’s been in Congress and I’ve been commissioner, and also when I was head of the nation’s ag[riculture] commissioners,” Strain tells me. “Specifically, on issues dealing with trade and dealing with the Agriculture Committee, at his request I’ve come to Washington to work on bills and legislation. When I need something in Washington, D.C., related to agriculture, I pick up the phone and call Doc. We’ve worked together extremely well, he’s very knowledgable, very hardworking, and he’ll make a good governor. He’s a good man.”
The next morning, we meet at Abraham’s hangar in Monroe, where he keeps his aircraft: his small plane, his slightly bigger small plane, and his helicopter. We’re flying to Hammond, where Abraham is going to meet with the St. Tammany Parish GOP executive committee to attempt to win their endorsement—an endorsement he won. The drive would be a nearly four-hours by car, but in Abraham’s plane with him in the cockpit, it takes less than an hour.
Along the way, Abraham explains the features of the airplane and how to communicate with air traffic control. He shows off the autopilot feature, and walks through how we’re flying at 5,000 feet—fairly low compared to commercial airliners, and our cell phones don’t lose service at this height.
When we land, the FBO in Hammond servicing Abraham’s plane and selling him fuel for the next journey is called “Top Gun Aviation.”
It’s a fitting name for a gubernatorial candidate so inextricably connected to flying, whose background in aviation is such a central part of his story. After marrying his high school sweetheart Dianne in 1977, then becoming a veterinarian in 1980, Abraham became a certified pilot and flight instructor, then was commissioned in the Army National Guard in 1986. He graduated later from medical school in 1994, becoming a general family doctor—wherefrom he gets the nickname “Doc”—in 1995. He flies all sorts of volunteer missions for programs like Pilots for Patients.
Abraham even has a campaign dog—who has his own Twitter account—named “Goose” after the wingman character in Top Gun.
— Goose Abraham (@GooseAbraham4) September 17, 2019
While he seems like nearly the perfect candidate for the GOP to soar into the governor’s mansion here, he’s got a few challenges left in his way. First and foremost, he has to be the Republican who gets into the runoff with Edwards in November—and not crash before October’s jungle primary.
Complicating matters for Abraham has been the candidacy of fellow Republican businessman Eddie Rispone. Rispone, a self-funder who, for most of the year, largely stayed neutral and anti-Edwards, including earlier this month, changed his tune mid-September to start running a series of false television ads hitting Abraham and worrying state Republicans that the primary could get too nasty to force the runoff in which Abraham intends to beat Edwards.
Louisiana’s jungle primary system is unique. All the candidates face off together in October in the primary. There are the two Republicans, Abraham and Rispone, the incumbent Democrat governor Edwards, another Democrat, an independent, and one other candidate running, for six total candidate.
If nobody gets to 50 percent, it triggers a runoff in November. Polling all year, and most polling now, has had Abraham in a strong second place behind Edwards, pointing to a likely runoff between Edwards and Abraham. A couple new polls out recently have had Rispone edging ahead, but most prognosticators in Louisiana privately tell Breitbart News they still expect Abraham to come in second and head to a runoff in November with Edwards—one that could shape the future of the country.
Secondly, he has to ensure there actually is a runoff. If Edwards were somehow able to get over 50 percent in October, the governor would be re-elected, and there would be no November shot for Abraham to beat Edwards.
“Edwards has to go,” Landry, the state’s attorney general, said in an interview with Breitbart News at the gator hunt. “We have to get a governor who recognizes the path to prosperity and increasing the quality of life is through growing the middle clas, which means creating jobs. This governor has done nothing but kill jobs.”
Landry has not endorsed between Abraham and Rispone, despite giving Abraham a warm reception at his gator hunt. Many statewide and national elected Republicans have stayed out of the fight to try to keep the temperature down inside the party to make unity easier after the primary—and make clear the system in Louisiana makes it harder to take out incumbents.
“I think we have some great candidates. Unfortunately, Louisiana doesn’t have a true primary system—it’s handicapped. I think we got two great guys running for [governor], but one thing that we know is that the policies that John Bel Edwards has rammed down the throats of Louisiana have been counterproductive. Louisiana is still first on all the bad lists, and last on all the good lists. Our economy has not benefited from the Trump bump in the economy… because of higher taxes and government spending.”
Assuming Abraham, who has cast himself as a strong ally of President Trump, is able to weather the storm and make it to the runoff with Edwards, he could easily frame the race in much the same way Trump did the national 2016 election. The similarities between this year in Louisiana and 2016 nationally are evident on a number of fronts and could make for a gunslinging epic battle between Abraham and Edwards in the home stretch of a runoff.
Louisiana is the only state in the union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to lose jobs this year—losing about 1,000 jobs over the past year.
In its endorsement of Abraham this week, the Baton Rouge Business Report notes that poverty is also on the rise in Louisiana under Edwards.
The Baton Rouge Business Report’s publisher wrote in endorsing Abraham:
Recent Census Bureau data shows that while the U.S. poverty rate is declining, it’s ticking higher in Louisiana, which now has the highest poverty rate in the nation, according to the two- and three-year averages cited in the report.
The national poverty rate is at its lowest level since 2001, sitting at 12% for the 2017-18 two-year period, down from 13.1% the two years prior. In Louisiana, though, poverty increased to 19.8%, rising 0.4% compared to the two years prior.
All of that and more—Louisiana, one of the most pro-Trump states in the union, has essentially been blocked from the Trump economy nationally by a Democrat governor—provides an opening for someone like Abraham to promise to get government out of the way of success.
“I truly believe that we’re one election away from being a Venezuela or a California with these liberal tax-and-spend politics,” Abraham told Breitbart News. “We’ve seen what he’s done to our oil and gas industry: He’s decimated it. We’ve seen what he’s done to manufacturing. We know our taxes are some of the highest in the nation. Car insurance is some of the highest in the nation. We’ve lost over 60,000 residents under his administration in three years. We are the only state that has lost jobs in the last 12 months. Where does it end? It’s got to stop. We are Louisiana.”
Abraham’s message is one of of hope and positivity–that Louisiana need not suffer under Democrat policies. One of his campaign ads literally says “help is on the way.”
“In Louisiana, we have so much potential. We have as much or probably more oil and gas deposits as Texas,” he said. “But what does Texas do? They’re bringing 1,200 people a day in. We’re losing hundreds of people a week out because of our legal climate, because of our tax climate, because of our regulatory burden with these legacy lawsuits.”
He said President Trump has proved nationally that Americans do not need to be stuck with Democrats’ “new normal” of a stagnant economy without much growth—and he wants to prove it now in Louisiana.
“I voted with our great president on that jobs act and tax cuts deal,” Abraham said. “And we see what it’s done—Obama said that was the new normal when we were growing at 1 percent GDP. Now we’re at several consecutive quarters of 3.4, 3.2 percent nationally, so, we know with a good leader like our president, with good deals, with good legislation, what can be—but that simply has not trickled down to Louisiana simply because of the same climate that frankly I just mentioned. Businesses are not going to come if they’re going to be strained as soon as they cross our border.”
“We are going to incentivize those businesses to come in,” Abraham adds, echoing Trump. “We welcome them because our priority is jobs, jobs, jobs. I’ve said it a thousand times, and I’ll say it a thousand and one: A good job, with high wages and benefits, will solve 90 percent of this state’s problems. But to get that good job, you got to have the legal climate and the tax climate so that they will come, stay, build, and hire.”
While Edwards is definitely vulnerable when it comes to the economy, that’s hardly his only weak spot. In his interview with Breitbart News at Landry’s gator hunt, Abraham tears into Edwards on a number of other fronts including, most notably on crime.
“His prison reform release was a debacle,” Abraham said. “We have people that are murdering, raping, and assaulting people that he let out of prison. I want to help those nonviolent offenders as much as possible get back into society and become taxpaying citizens, but on a violent crime I want them to do every second of that sentence. Right now, with his reform, you can be sentenced to five years and you may serve one. That will stop also on day one with violent offenders.”
On immigration, Abraham rips Edwards for protecting New Orleans’ status as a sanctuary city and says he will do “exactly what our good president is doing.”
“We are going to appreciate and we’re going to fund as much as possible from the state level ICE and Border Patrol, as well as those sheriffs who want to do the right thing and those police chiefs who want to get those illegal immigrants out of there,” Abraham said. “I don’t want them here. If they want to come in, come in legally.”
On education, he plans to eliminate Common Core.
“I’ve opposed Common Core since day one,” Abraham said. “What a novel idea: Why don’t we let the teachers teach, and the parents be the parents? Put the discipline back in the classroom and let the teachers teach those children the way they know how to teach, and I guarantee you we will be meeting national standards but right now we are 49th in the nation in education. What he’s doing from an educational standard is not working. If it was, we would not be 50th out of 50th for three years in a row.”
On the Second Amendment, he rips San Francisco for labeling the NRA a “domestic terrorist organization” and slams Edwards for not defending the NRA.
“It’s terrible,” Abraham said of San Francisco’s move. “The NRA is a good organization that protects the Second Amendment and protects the rights of American citizens. We’re going to welcome them in this state, and I have said in commercials and I’ve said the Second Amendment is self-explanatory period. Read the Constitution and you will get what it means.”
All of this becomes possible—and likely—should Abraham weather the turbulence now and make it to the runoff with Edwards, then beat him. Early voting has opened in Louisiana this weekend, and it remains to be seen what happens next.