- The Washington Times - Monday, June 10, 2019

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, the lone Democratic chief executive in the Deep South, normally would be close to a dead man walking as he eyes reelection in November.

The state’s voters are solidly conservative, are fans of President Trump and have surrounded Mr. Edwards with Republicans. He won his first term in 2015 by defeating a deeply wounded Republican, then-Sen. David Vitter, who had suffered through an embarrassing prostitution scandal.

Yet Mr. Edwards is less vulnerable than all that suggests.

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“It’s hard to say, but his approval rating has hovered around 50% and he’s in pretty good shape being a Democrat in a red state,” said Edward Chervenak, director of the survey research team at the University of New Orleans.

Mr. Edwards has a full campaign war chest, strong name recognition with voters and a first term that has gone off without major scandal as he built a moderate track record. He has shrunk the state’s deficit, raised teachers’ pay and signed a pro-life abortion bill that cleared the Legislature with huge majorities.

Meanwhile, Republicans have failed to attract the kind of big-name candidate they were seeking to make the race a shoo-in. State Attorney General Jeff Landry and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy have taken passes.

That has left Rep. Ralph Lee Abraham and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone as the two main Republicans fighting to oust the governor, though the number of challengers could rise.

The Republican establishment in Louisiana is slightly split. Most of the Republican elected officials south of Interstate 10 back Mr. Rispone, and many north of the highway support Mr. Abraham.

“We’re all a little bit nervous, that’s true,” said one Republican state lawmaker who declined to speak on the record because he hasn’t publicly endorsed either candidate. “But we’re all also very confident that the Republican voters will come home as they did behind President Trump and as they didn’t in 2015.”

In the 2015 election, Mr. Edwards entered the race as a largely unknown state representative and shocked many analysts by triumphing over Mr. Vitter, who was reelected to the Senate five years earlier with 57% of the vote.

But Mr. Vitter carried baggage that neither Mr. Abraham nor Mr. Rispone has so far. In addition to his admissions of indiscretions with women, Mr. Vitter long worked to develop his own power base within Louisiana at odds with then-two term incumbent Gov. Bobby Jindal.

In seeking reelection, Mr. Edwards is likely to face a much more united Republican majority, creating some tricky arithmetic for him.

Louisiana holds a “jungle primary” system of elections, pitting all declared candidates against one another in an initial vote, this year on Oct. 12. If no candidate emerges with 50% plus one, then a runoff between the top two, no matter which party, will be held Nov. 16.

The governor’s reelection numbers don’t match his approval rating, according to polls.

“No matter how you stack it, Edwards is sitting at about 40% right now,” said John Couvillon, the head of JMC Enterprises, a political consulting and polling outfit in Louisiana. “And any point that comes out of the Edwards pile leaves him one less closer to 50.”

Gary Landrieu of New Orleans is running as a long-shot independent, but he comes with a famous political name in Louisiana and could siphon some support away from Mr. Edwards, according to Mr. Couvillon’s analysis.

The governor leads in all scenarios Mr. Couvillon has run thus far, but both he and Mr. Chernevak said polls are largely meaningless at this point given the low name recognition statewide for Mr. Abraham and Mr. Rispone.

“It would be a Hail Mary for him to get to 50% plus one,” said Anthony Ramirez, a spokesman with the Rispone campaign.

Louisiana tradition says Pelican State elections truly start around Labor Day and are fought over a roughly five-week period. Mr. Ramirez insisted that voters will have a clearer picture by then of Mr. Edwards and his opponents.

“Just when we are going to do it is something we are holding close to the vest, but we’re going to be able to rev up the name recognition when we open the faucets and will be making a substantial [advertising] buy,” Mr. Ramirez said.

Several political professionals in the state, however, said they believe Mr. Rispone should move aggressively soon, while he holds a pronounced cash advantage over Mr. Abraham and the field isn’t crowded with candidates who, however marginal, take up space and attention.

Mr. Edwards is prohibited by law from fundraising while the Louisiana Legislature is in session — it wrapped up just last week — and for the 30 days he has to sign or veto legislation after the session ends.

Mr. Abraham’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Political insiders are predicting the race will attract an unusual amount of outside spending, given the paucity of other big races this year and Mr. Edwards‘ status as the lone blue Democratic governor in a red sea.

Whether Mr. Edwards‘ recent vote in favor of restricting abortions will hurt him remains to be seen, although his campaign says the fury directed at him from largely outside sources does not reflect his standing among in-state liberals.

“We respect their opinion and understand it,” said Eric Holl, the Edwards campaign spokesman. “But the governor has always been concerned with Louisianians first, his fundraising efforts have always been focused in-state, and his decision was in keeping with the pro-life positions he always expressed. Edwards is a man of his word.”

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