BR.govsugarcane17.072018

From left, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, D.V.M., La. Director of Agricultural Finance Authority René Simon and and Gov. John Bel Edwards talk before Strain and Edwards spoke to and took questions from sugar cane farmers during their visit to the Alton Landry Inc. farm in Plaquemine, Thursday, July 19, 2018. The visit was a continuation of the listening tour held last November when Strain and Edwards visited farms across the state covering the state's major commodities.

A year out from election day, Gov. John Bel Edwards has drawn his first official Republican opponent in the 2019 governor's race, but other potential challengers remain mum on their official plans.

Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone this week filed campaign organizational papers that will allow him to begin fundraising efforts in earnest.

"I just think we can do a lot better than the governor's doing," said Rispone, 69.

Rispone, a prominent donor to Republican candidates in the past, said he'll make a more formal campaign announcement in the coming weeks to outline his platform.

"I think we just need a different approach," Rispone said. "We don't have anyone with my background and experience."

Meanwhile, Republicans anxiously await word from others who have openly acknowledged that they are also considering challenging Edwards, who was seen as a long-shot candidate for governor before defeating Republican David Vitter in 2015.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and others have been floated as potential contenders who have already won elections in Louisiana.

Abraham, of Alto, has said he won't make a final decision until after his campaign for re-election to represent Louisiana's 5th U.S. Congressional District next month.

Landry political consultant Brent Littlefield pointed to past statements that Landry has made about the race and declined to give an update. Landry has said he won't run if Kennedy or another Republican he thinks can beat Edwards enters the race.

Kennedy, meanwhile, has acknowledged "seriously considering" running. His political advisers didn't respond to multiple requests for updated comment on Friday.

"We're getting into a kind of critical decision-making time. If we're going to have a candidate, we need to find one and soon," Landry told the USA Today Network in late July of the mounting pressure to kick-start Louisiana's next gubernatorial race.

Landry and other Republicans have pointed to a divided GOP after a bitter primary battle in the 2015 cycle as a contributor to Edwards' election as the only Democrat holding statewide office in Louisiana. Landry has called for the party to get behind one main candidate to prevent a repeat of that scenario.

With no clear challenger, Edwards has had months to court business leaders, farmers, educators and other potential voters with listening tours and public events across the state. He also has set out on an aggressive fundraising push — reporting more than $5 million in his campaign coffers at the end of 2017, which was the most recent reporting period.

"Louisiana is so much better off under the leadership of Gov. Edwards, and he looks forward to discussing this record with the people of Louisiana over the campaign," Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said of the looming re-election battle.

All candidates, regardless of party, who qualify for governor next year will appear on the ballot on Oct. 12, 2019. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, will face off in a Nov. 13 runoff.

Because Louisiana's gubernatorial races are held during a thin national cycle, 2019 is expected to be an especially heated and high-profile race and will undoubtedly draw attention from the national parties.

As the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, Edwards is likely to face particular heat from national Republicans.

Edwards, who opposes abortion, signed into law one of the nation's strictest anti-abortion bills that would ban terminations after 15 weeks of pregnancy if a court upholds a similar ban in Mississippi.

But other ideological positions have opened him up to Republican criticism and firmly planted a target on his back.

Edwards, shortly after entering office, expanded Medicaid through executive order, providing health care coverage to nearly 480,000 adults — mainly the working poor. The expansion is mostly paid for through federal dollars and has allowed the state to shift some other costs within the Department of Health to save state dollars, but it has still been a bone of contention with conservatives who question the rapid growth of an entitlement program.

Already there have been indications that the election cycle will focus heavily on the state's economy — an issue that already draws strong divisions between Edwards and his GOP foes.

When Edwards points to shoring up the state's finances for the first time in more than a decade, Republicans point to the sales tax hike that was used to do so. Edwards often notes that the state's unemployment rate has dropped since he took office, to which Republicans point out that Louisiana's rate remains above the national average.

Rispone's addition to the field could serve as an unexpected twist. Businessmen have successfully skipped the usual political ladder to ascend to the highest office in other states, including Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Rispone, the founder of the industrial contracting company ISC Constructors, said he's committed to contributing at least $5 million toward his own campaign, which he hopes donors will lift to $10 million in all.

"We think it will cost somewhere between $8 (million) to $10 million to run a successful campaign," he said.

Rispone said that the response to his candidacy has been positive.

"I've worked really hard for years to elect good people," he said.

He said he's not fazed by early critics who have pointed to his support of former Gov. Bobby Jindal and Vitter in previous gubernatorial races.

"Friends and loved ones and politicians that I've been working with for years have all said, 'You have to have thick skin,' " he said.

Rispone has seven children and 23 grandchildren, whom he credits for inspiring him to want a better future for Louisiana.

"It's a sincere, long-thought-out decision," he said.

New Orleans businessman John Georges mounted a similar "outsider" campaign for governor in 2007 but as an independent, winning about 14 percent of the vote. Georges is now owner of The Advocate, which he bought years after his defeat in the gubernatorial race that Jindal won.

"The challenge that business people have is you have to have name recognition," Georges said of his experience.

People who are already government officials — a U.S. senator or statewide office holder, for example — have built-in opportunities to attract media attention related to that office.

"They're already in the public eye," Georges said.

Georges named several entrepreneurs and other public figures not in office who he said he believes could have the name recognition in Louisiana to overcome that challenge.

On the national level, he pointed to President Donald Trump, who beat out a large Republican field of recognized politicians to win the GOP nomination and went on to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, despite never having run for office before. Trump had an internationally known brand and a popular reality television show.

"Having people know who you are is the first thing," Georges said. "Getting them to support you is the second hurdle.

"I'm not saying it's impossible, but the factors have to be aligned."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.