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Analysis: Louisiana governor’s race finally taking shape

December 7, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s Republican leaders have wanted to oust Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards ever since his long-shot victory in 2015, but the candidate field shaping up years later doesn’t feature the prominent political figures once predicted.

The biggest-name GOP contenders all have bypassed the 2019 governor’s race, culminating with U.S. Sen. John Kennedy’s announcement last week that he would skip a gubernatorial bid and stay in Washington.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the dream candidate of many Republicans, never flirted with the governor’s race publicly, even as people tried to keep his name in speculation. Scalise, too, prefers to remain in Congress, where he’s one of the most powerful Republicans in the game.

Attorney General Jeff Landry also sidestepped a challenge against his regular foe Edwards in favor of seeking re-election to a seat that so far seems safe for Landry. Political operatives once suggested Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves as potential candidates, but they also decided against entering the race.

Instead, the two announced GOP contenders for the October election are U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a rural northeast Louisiana lawmaker who remains little-known across much of the state after four years in Congress, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, a first-time office-seeker pledging to pour millions of his personal wealth into the race.

While the Republican candidates aren’t the expected politicians with wider name recognition, they shouldn’t be discounted as serious contenders who might be able to keep Edwards from a second term in office.

Louisiana, after all, remains a state where President Donald Trump remains popular and Edwards is the only Democrat holding a statewide office. He’s the only Democratic governor throughout the Deep South. Republicans nationally are targeting the seat as one they can flip, and they seem ready to pour hefty sums into the effort.

“I would say his prospects are obviously better” with Kennedy out of the race, said Baton Rouge-based pollster Bernie Pinsonat. “But being a Democratic incumbent in a red state like Louisiana doesn’t make him a shoo-in.”

Edwards and his supporters suggest that the long list of well-known Republicans who chose to stay out of the race shows how formidable a candidate the governor is.

“This speaks to what we’ve accomplished over the last three years. Kennedy realized that the people of this state see our progress and believe in our vision. If he thought we’d be easy to beat, he’d certainly be trying to do so,” Edwards said in a fundraising email.

Edwards has incumbency, which has often proved powerful in Louisiana elections, and he’s maintained solid approval ratings with voters throughout his first term. And just like Republicans are readying for an all-out-effort against him, Democrats locally and nationally are up and running with a similar onslaught of support for him.

Kennedy dismissed suggestions he skipped the race because he was worried he could lose, and also rejected claims that his decision against a gubernatorial bid would damage Republican chances to retake the seat.

“I consider that a very unfair criticism of my colleagues,” he said in an interview. “Nobody’s indispensable in this business. There’s a lot of good Republicans out there.”

Democrats responded by posting video clips of Kennedy, before he announced his decision, saying polls showed two people could beat Edwards: Kennedy and Scalise. After his decision, Kennedy said he believed either he or Scalise would have won if they entered the governor’s race, but he added: “I’m not saying others can’t win.”

With low name recognition, Abraham and Rispone still have time to shape their narratives as candidates, unlike more well-known contenders. Abraham’s been underrated before, not expected to win the congressional race when he first ran in 2014. Rispone hopes to capitalize on the appeal of non-politicians to voters, a strategy that has worked in several states and in Trump’s election.

Still, the biggest problem for Republicans trying to retake the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion may be in keeping the list of GOP contenders short and rallying around one major candidate, as others like state Sen. Sharon Hewitt and Treasurer John Schroder say they’re eyeing the race.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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