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Gov. John Bel Edwards gives an end-of-the-year press conference for 2017 Wednesday at the Governor's Mansion. Language interpreter Daniel Burch is at right.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

It may have come a few days early, but Gov. John Bel Edwards just got quite the Christmas present. New poll numbers from Southern Media & Opinion Research of Baton Rouge are better than Edwards could have dreamed.

Even as talk is picking up over which major Republican, or Republicans, will challenge him in 2019, the poll puts Edwards' approval rating at an enviable 65 percent. That's impressive under any circumstances, but particularly so in the Democratic governor's case. It means he's more popular among voters than major GOP figures such as U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (55 percent), U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (51 percent), President Donald Trump (48 percent) and U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy (45 percent).

And perhaps most encouraging for Edwards — and concerning for the forces who had him pegged as a fluke winner two years ago who'd be a long shot for reelection — the governor got a thumbs-up from 44 percent of Republicans who took the poll of 500 likely voters, which was conducted for private subscribers Nov. 28-30 and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Think about that for a minute. Edwards is an outlier, the only statewide elected Democrat in a state that votes reliably Republican. He's raised taxes, albeit reluctantly. He has not been able to convince the GOP-majority Legislature to go along with some of his priorities and has seen others suffer under tight budget constraints.

Two of his major hires have come under enormous fire lately. Deputy chief of staff Johnny Anderson resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. Former Louisiana State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, retained by Edwards from Bobby Jindal's administration, is under fire for potential self-dealing and possibly covering up for troopers who took a taxpayer-funded road trip through the Southwest. Edwards dealt swiftly with both controversies, but in each case there were warning signs before he made the hires in the first place.

He's also approachable, empathetic and strong in a crisis, and when discussing the need to get the state's fiscal house in order, he always comes off as eminently reasonable. While his partisan critics like to cast him as an ideologue, he talks frequently of finding the center, as he was able to do when he passed a broad criminal justice reform package this year. Even as he's made more of a name for himself in national Democratic circles, he's refrained from harshly criticizing Trump, and has in fact visited the White House to work on common interests such as the opioid crisis.  Jindal has been out of office for two years, but the contrast in styles still seems to be resonating.

Poll: Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards' approval rating climbs, outpacing Kennedy, Cassidy

Yes, this is just one poll, but he's performed well in enough others to think that some of these qualities are clearly working to his advantage.

The poll hints that something else might be. Edwards is a staunch proponent of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. He expanded Medicaid without needing to go through the Legislature and obsessively touts both the human and financial benefits. As Trump and congressional Republicans spent much of 2017 battling in vain to eliminate the ACA, Edwards joined a bipartisan group of governors urging that they instead focus on fixing its flaws and shoring up its strengths.

One of the most prominent figures on the other side of this issue has been Cassidy, a former doctor in Louisiana's old Charity system. Cassidy became the public face of several versions of the repeal, with the final effort bearing his name along with that of South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.

Cassidy ran and won on a promise to get rid of Obamacare, so he can be forgiven for thinking it might be a winning issue for him. But with the possibility of coverage and protection losses suddenly very real, the poll found that Louisiana voters are almost evenly split on the subject these days. SMOR pollster Bernie Pinsonat wrote in his analysis that Cassidy's health care politics likely caused him to drop among a key swing bloc, white Democrats.

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Kennedy, meanwhile, is one name that frequently pops up in conversations about the 2019 gubernatorial election, even though he's yet to reach his first anniversary in office. With his high profile role in heading off several unqualified or otherwise problematic Trump judicial nominees, he seems to be finding his footing up in Washington.

Perhaps numbers like these will persuade him to stick around for a while.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.