BATON ROUGE, La.—Republican candidates for Louisiana governor have tried to hammer Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards for the abortion rights policies endorsed by his party nationally. That's a problematic fight to pick with Edwards, whose anti-abortion stance is well-documented over years of legislative votes, gubernatorial bill signings, and his own personal family story.
The narrative was made more difficult when statistics released last week showed the number of abortions in Louisiana continued to decline during Edwards' tenure in office, as the governor and lawmakers added more restrictions to accessing the procedure.
Edwards praised the figures released by the Department of Health, which showed 8,084 abortions performed in Louisiana last year, the lowest number in a decade and declining each year Edwards has been governor.
"My Catholic Christian faith teaches me to be pro-life," the governor said in a statement. "This is personal for Donna and me, and we take it very seriously. We are committed to reducing the number of abortions in Louisiana."
Still, Republican challengers in the governor's race—U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a doctor from northeast Louisiana, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, running for his first political office—are trying to challenge Edwards' credentials as an anti-abortion Democrat.
They seek to tie him to actions of Democratic leaders in other states and in Congress, ignoring Edwards' record in Louisiana, which is out of step with his party.
Louisiana is one of the nation's most anti-abortion states, with a law on the books that immediately outlaws abortion if Roe v. Wade is ever overturned. Proposals to add new restrictions to abortion don't divide Republicans and Democrats in Louisiana and regularly get overwhelming, bipartisan support.
When he ran for governor in 2015, Edwards made opposition to abortion a central platform of his campaign. In a TV ad, Edwards' wife Donna described being 20-weeks pregnant when a doctor discovered their child had spina bifida and encouraged her to have an abortion. She said Edwards refused the advice. The ad showed their grown-up daughter Samantha as Donna Edwards said, "She's living proof that John Bel Edwards lives his values every day."
Since Edwards took office, lawmakers approved measures to require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital; require women to wait three days after an initial doctors' visit before they can get an abortion, with some exceptions; ban a common second-trimester abortion procedure in most situations; add new criteria for doctors to be eligible to perform abortions; and require abortion providers to bury or cremate fetal remains.
Edwards signed each into law. Before that, as a House member, he voted for abortion restrictions.
Many of the laws are on hold amid federal lawsuits objecting to the restrictions as placing an unnecessary burden on women's rights.
But every year, new restrictions are proposed, and Edwards either supports them or recommends them himself. Most recently, the governor signed a measure to ban abortions after 15 weeks, though it only takes effect if a federal court upholds a similar law in Mississippi.
Abraham and Rispone suggest that isn't enough.
In a Twitter post Thursday, Rispone criticized Edwards for supporting Hillary Clinton and referenced Clinton's backing of abortion rights. A few weeks earlier, Rispone slammed Edwards for not commenting when Democrats in the U.S. Senate blocked a GOP bill that would have threatened prison for doctors who don't try saving the life of infants born alive during abortions.
"His party is wrong on this. Where is his statement?" Rispone posted on Twitter. "We need a Governor who represents Louisiana conservative values and is outspoken on #ProLife issues."
Abraham panned Edwards for benefiting from a fundraiser "thrown in his honor by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who supports infanticide legislation." Northam, a pediatric neurologist, spoke favorably in January about state legislation to ease restrictions on late-term abortions. Northam said "a discussion would ensue" between doctors and the family over what to do if an infant is born who is badly deformed or incapable of living.
But anti-abortion advocates praise Edwards, undercutting the GOP candidates' arguments.
When the new data showed another decline in abortions, Louisiana Right to Life tweeted about the governor: "Thank you JohnBelforLA for your strong stand for life!"
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.