With two years until Louisiana's next election for governor, speculation is already growing over which Republican will mount a campaign against incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards.
And one familiar name in particular has been reverberating across the state in recent weeks: U.S. Sen. John Neely Kennedy, the former state treasurer who has been in the U.S. Senate not even a year.
Kennedy has not made a commitment publicly whether he will run or not.
“I've got six things on my mind right now: passing tax reform, instituting Medicaid work requirements, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, passing a NFIP bill, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and beating Alabama," he told The Advocate by email, referencing LSU's upcoming football game. "Except for beating Alabama, I'm focused on policy, not politics, right now."
Kennedy, 65, has been a statewide officeholder in Louisiana for nearly two decades, winning six elections. He busted through a packed Republican field that included two sitting congressmen to win his Senate seat last fall.
"Until Kennedy decides if he wants to come back home and run, everything else is on hold," pollster Bernie Pinsonat said of the potential challengers to Edwards.
Edwards, the only Democrat governor in the Deep South, could draw several challengers from the GOP, but political observers have speculated that Republicans will try to rally behind the candidate who has the best chance to beat him in a head-to-head runoff, if Edwards doesn't get more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary.
Making things tougher for Edwards, Pinsonat predicted that the national Republican Party will place a target on his head in a national election cycle that features few other competitive races.
"You have to say as long as he remains popular he has a fighting chance to get re-elected," Pinsonat said. "But if this is the battleground — and it most certainly will be — then Edwards' problem is to withstand everybody."
He compared the likely scenario to Georgia's congressional race this year, which topped $50 million in overall spending.
"All of these races now are national Republicans versus national Democrats," he said.
One possible signal that Kennedy's testing the waters can be found in his campaign finance reports: Early into his six-year Senate term, he has continued to aggressively raise money.
His most recent campaign finance report shows he has collected $1.4 million in contributions since the first of the year — more than $1 million of that through hundreds of contributions in his first six months in office. He had more than $2 million cash on hand as of Sept. 30.
Kennedy's most recent fundraising report for his state-level campaign account lists "future" in the space for the election date, and as of the end of 2016 — the most recent report available — he had left a $362,006 cushion after transferring most of his campaign cash to the Ending Spending Action Fund, a political action committee that backed his run for Senate.
Kennedy can't automatically transfer funds from his federal account to his state account, but the money can go into a political action committee.
Political action committees are not supposed to coordinate activities with the official campaigns, but they proved powerful in the 2015 governor's race.
Kennedy's Senate predecessor, David Vitter, pioneered a legal but unusual maneuver of shifting funds from his federal campaign coffers to a political action committee that supported his unsuccessful run for governor against Edwards in the last round.
Edwards' most recent campaign finance report showed he had nearly $3.3 million cash on hand at the start of 2017. He is not due to file another report until early next year, but he has held multiple campaign fundraisers this year since the last report was filed.
A spokesman for Edwards, who announced his plans to seek re-election last year and is unlikely to draw any significant Democratic opposition, declined to comment for this story.
Aside from money, Kennedy also has used his position in the Senate to highlight state-level issues, frequently placing himself at odds with Edwards and other Democrats in the state. He recently penned a letter to Edwards about concerns over the state-run Medicaid program, and he has frequently chided New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu over the city's crime and policies on interacting with immigrants.
It's a tactic Kennedy honed in the politically weak treasurer's role, courting the spotlight by frequently lobbing criticism at then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican whose popularity dwindled in Louisiana ahead of his unsuccessful bid for president.
"Kennedy's very popular in Louisiana and very active in Louisiana politics," Pinsonat said. "He gets a lot of face time."
GOP chairman Roger Villere, in a recent interview with WWL radio, also stoked the Kennedy speculation, highlighting him as having a fundraising capacity and name recognition that a candidate would likely need to mount a campaign against an incumbent.
Pinsonat said Kennedy's Senate term running through 2022 places him in an advantageous position to run for governor.
"If he loses, he's still a U.S. senator, but if he wins he can appoint whoever he wants as senator," Pinsonat said.
Pinsonat said U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was critically wounded in a mass shooting at a Republican baseball practice, could be another formidable foe against Edwards, should he choose to return to state politics.
Scalise, a Jefferson Republican who is the longest-serving and highest-ranking member of Louisiana's congressional delegation, has been largely focused on national issues since returning to the U.S. Capitol last mont after three months of recovery and rehabilitation. An ally of Trump, he has touted efforts to repeal and replace the federal Affordable Care Act and overhaul the nation's tax code. He hasn't generally weighed in publicly on state-specific issues the way Kennedy often does.
"I'm sure if Kennedy doesn't run, a lot of people will be running to Washington to urge Steve Scalise to think about it," Pinsonat said.
Scalise, who hasn't filed a state-level campaign finance report since zeroing out the account in 2009, has about $811,000 in his federal campaign fund, records show. He also has an active and aggressive federal political action committee behind him.
Others often mentioned include Attorney General Jeff Landry, who also has frequently entered into public spats with Edwards in the months since both took office in January 2016.
Brent Littlefield, a political adviser to Landry, said the first-term attorney general has made no decision about 2019 but he acknowledged that he has received encouragement to run for governor.
"He appreciates all the well-wishes and encouragement, but he continues to be solely focused on the job he has at hand and looks forward to doing a good job for the state of Louisiana as the state's attorney general," Littlefield said. "He is focused squarely on the job he is doing today."
Still, he said that Landry, who is in line to become president of the National Association of Attorneys General, has concerns about the direction that the state is heading on issues he has highlighted.
"Attorney General Jeff Landry is focused on providing strong conservative leadership for the state of Louisiana — that means fiscal responsibility, promoting Louisiana values and promoting the rule of law," Littlefield said.
At the end of 2016, the most recent records available, Landry reported having $544,193 in his campaign coffers.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, has also drawn speculation, as he has been at odds with Edwards on issues, including recovery from last year's catastrophic floods.
Graves, who would have to rely on a maneuver similar to Vitter's to draw down his federal campaign dollars through a PAC, doesn't have a state campaign fund. He had about $1.3 million cash on hand in his federal account as of Sept. 30.