BATON ROUGE, LA – President Donald Trump said the impeachment probe has been “very hard” on his family, even as he tried to flex his political muscle to flip the governor’s mansion in deep-red Louisiana.
Speaking in friendly territory in a state he carried in 2016 by 20 percentage points, Trump lashed out Thursday at Democratic investigators and what he called a “deranged impeachment witch hunt.” While arguing it was a political boon for his reelection, he acknowledged for the first time a personal toll from the impeachment process that stands to cloud his legacy.
“I have one problem,” Trump said. “Impeachment to me is a dirty word, it’s been very unfair, very hard on my family.”
The House began public impeachment hearings Wednesday.
Trump repeated his denials of wrongdoing in his dealings with Ukraine, asserting he had no need to ask that nation to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his family.
“We took down Bush, Clinton, Obama, with no experience, but I had you and we won,” Trump said of his 2016 victory. “Think about that and then think about me — ‘Gee, let’s get some help from Ukraine in order to beat sleepy Joe Biden.’ I don’t think so.”
He added, “The people of this country aren't buying it," claiming polls show a benefit to Republicans as Democrats focus on impeachment.
"We did nothing wrong,” Trump insisted, “and they're doing nothing."
Even in reliably Republican Louisiana, the gubernatorial contest has reached its final days ahead of Saturday’s election as a tossup. Democrat John Bel Edwards is vying for a second term against little-known Republican political donor Eddie Rispone.
“If you want to defend your values, your jobs, and your freedom, then you need to replace radical John Bel Edwards with a true Louisiana patriot, Eddie Rispone,” Trump said at the rally in north Louisiana’s Bossier City.
The Shreveport area is prime territory to reach out to backers of Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, the gubernatorial primary’s third-place finisher. Both Edwards and Rispone are targeting Abraham’s voters, knowing those 317,000 people can help decide the race’s outcome. Abraham endorsed Rispone and appeared at the rally with Trump.
Louisiana has the last of three Southern governor’s races this year, all targets of intense interest from the GOP and Trump. While Republicans kept the seat in Mississippi, they lost Kentucky’s governorship, with Republican incumbent Matt Bevin conceding the race Thursday.
Smarting from the Kentucky outcome, Trump has turned his focus to Louisiana and defeating Edwards, the Deep South’s only Democratic governor. Thursday’s event was the president’s third in the state’s gubernatorial competition.
Arguing for Edwards’ removal, Trump told the crowd that while the nation is doing great economically, Louisiana isn’t. He said it’s at the bottom for economic development while at the top for murders, adding, “You're doing lousy compared to others.”
Rispone, owner of an industrial contracting firm, spent millions on the race, hitched his candidacy to Trump and hammered a pro-Trump theme ever since.
“What Trump has done for our country has been phenomenal. ... The economy is booming in the United States, but it's not booming in Louisiana. We're falling behind,” Rispone said at an event in Baton Rouge. “We want to do for Louisiana what Trump has done for the nation.”
Edwards suggested Rispone has turned repeatedly to Trump because he can’t stand on the strength of state-specific issues. Rispone has dodged details of how he’d balance the budget with his proposed tax cuts and what he wants to accomplish in a constitutional convention.
Rispone is “trying to nationalize this race because that’s the only shot he has,” Edwards said Thursday at a campaign rally in Shreveport.
Race watchers say Trump’s influence can only stretch so far.
“I don’t think Trump’s bringing more to the table than has already been brought into the campaign,” said Michael Henderson, director of Louisiana State University's Public Policy Research Center.
Edwards supporters say Trump’s visits are actually boosting their own chances, helping to turn out black voters and other Democrats who skipped the primary.
Melissa Toler, a 65-year-old retiree who voted early in New Orleans, chose Edwards “because he’s the best candidate, the most qualified, and the most reasonable.” She said Trump’s visits to Louisiana stirred up interest.
“I’m a registered independent and he whips me up, not in a good way,” Toler said.
In New Orleans and other cities with high concentrations of African American voters, a wave of ads says Rispone’s tight ties with Trump are a reason to vote for Edwards. And while Edwards sidesteps direct criticism of the president, the Louisiana Democratic Party posted ads on Facebook declaring, “If Rispone wins, Trump wins” and asking voters to “keep hate out of Louisiana” by supporting Edwards.
The anti-Trump messaging by outside groups and Edwards’ own grassroots outreach effort to black voters appear to be having an effect. African American turnout during the early voting period jumped significantly above primary levels, a critical piece of Edwards’ strategy to win a second term.
Associated Press writers Kevin Freking and Jill Colvin contributed to this report from Washington.