Derrick Edwards qualifies

New Orleans attorney Derrick Edwards signed up as the only Democratic candidate to run for state treasurer on Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Baton Rouge. All the major candidates for the vacant seat qualified for the Oct. 14 ballot on the opening day of the sign-up period.

Advocate photo by Mark Ballard

Louisiana's nonparty primary system can make for some pretty weird election scenarios, but this may be a first: The candidate who consistently leads the polls in the fall special election for state treasurer is considered so weak that his own party is staying away.

New Orleans lawyer Derrick Edwards, a political newcomer with one prior long-shot campaign for U.S. Senate under his belt, no identifiable campaign organization and almost no money, has been clocking in at about 25 to 35 percent of the vote, with his better known and better funded rivals trailing behind.

Outside of Edwards' innermost circle, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks he's got a serious shot at replacing now-U.S. Sen. John Kennedy.

Instead, chalk up his strong poll numbers to the fact that he's the only Democrat in the field of six, and the likelihood that, while a majority of Louisiana voters tend to favor Republicans, a substantial minority may well gravitate toward the candidate with the "D" next to his name (it may not hurt that he shares a last name with the popular Democratic governor, although that's where the connection begins and ends).

And so the Louisiana Democratic Party's executive committee this week declined to recommend that the party formally endorse Edwards, unless he shows that he can field a campaign and has some sort of path to a clear majority in the runoff.

But here's another oddity: Even as Edwards' fellow Democrats are discounting his chances, his presence atop the polls is helping dictate how everyone else is running.

There are three relatively well-known Republicans in race: state Sen. Neil Riser, former state Rep. John Schroder, and former commissioner of administration Angele Davis. If Edwards wasn't in the mix, they'd likely be reaching out to Democratic voters who didn't have a candidate of their own but who are plentiful enough to boost a more moderate Republican's chances — and may well be proportionately over-represented on Oct. 14 because the high-profile race for New Orleans mayor is on the same ballot.

Early on, that's the way it looked like this election might play out.

One Republican in particular, state Rep. Julie Stokes, appeared well-positioned to attract crossover support. She's from Kenner and has some name identification and connections in New Orleans. She made a high-profile stand against sexist behavior in the Legislature, which raised her profile among female voters. And she's been willing to break with the hardcore conservative wing of her party on state budget issues and even support some of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' initiatives.

But Stokes opted out of the race following a breast cancer diagnosis just before qualifying.

There's also a scenario in which Davis could fill that role. She was a top aide to Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal during his first term, and earlier served under another Republican, Gov. Mike Foster. But she also worked for Democratic New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu when he was lieutenant governor. And because she's never been in the Legislature, she has no voting record, so she's freer than her opponents to position herself however she wants.

But that doesn't appear to be her strategy. Instead, she seems to be focusing mainly on competing with Schroder and Riser, both of whom have staunchly conservative legislative records, for Republican support.

One sign of that is her recent tweets linking herself to polarizing President Donald Trump. Ostensibly about Davis' support for infrastructure investment, which Trump has vaguely promised, she made a point of adding #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, a reference that may attract Republicans but is sure to alienate Trump-averse Democrats.

It's pretty easy to deduce the reasoning here. If the Republicans concede one runoff spot to Edwards, then that leaves just one for a GOP candidate. And whichever Republican candidate claims it becomes the overwhelming favorite to win the runoff — even if the GOP field remains so splintered that Edwards finishes the primary in first place.

Top Democrats, meanwhile, left the door open to getting behind Derrick Edwards, if he proves that he can be a factor. The truth, though, is that he became a factor just by signing up.

Just not the sort of factor his party leaders would have hoped.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.