U.S. Sen. John Kennedy is waiting at least a couple more weeks to say whether he will run for governor next year. But on a recent day in Denham Springs, Kennedy sure appeared to be in campaign mode.
"It's great to be back in America," Kennedy, 66, quipped to the people gathered to welcome the Bell family into their home that was severely damaged in 2016's catastrophic floods.
Welcome to the 2019 race for governor — one of Louisiana's most highly anticipated fights for the coveted state chief executive post.
Experts say the race could become one of the state's most expensive, and it's also getting a close watch from people outside Louisiana who are wondering whether Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor in the Deep South and initially considered a long shot when he ran in 2015, can survive re-election.
Edwards' supporters point to the expansion of Medicaid, which has provided health care coverage to more than 481,000 Louisiana residents since the governor signed an executive order implementing the Affordable Care Act provision shortly after taking office in January 2016; a stabilized state budget; and other successes since taking office as his re-election bona fides.
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Over the past week, he attended a ground-breaking ceremony for a veterans' cemetery, read to elementary school children in Calcasieu Parish and spoke to the Jobs for America’s Graduates-Louisiana Student Leadership Conference, among other items on a packed, media-friendly schedule.
Kennedy, a Republican who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016 on his third try for the job, for now says he still hasn't made up his mind on whether he will challenge Edwards.
One Republican, Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, is the only person who has formally filed paperwork to run next year. Others, including U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, are thought to be mulling a run. Attorney General Jeff Landry has said he may run but won't if Kennedy enters the race.
Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser has said he will run for re-election as the state's cultural ambassador, and other statewide elected officials have shown no interest in running against the incumbent governor.
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"I'll make a decision here in the next couple of weeks," Kennedy said this week. "I've got a lot going on (in the Senate), but at the same time, my state's in trouble."
Later, he said, "I haven't even made a decision to run yet. I've tried not to be coy about this."
He smoothly worked his way through the crowd, where Teressa Bell, 80, and her 54-year-old daughter, Donna, who is quadriplegic, were welcomed with balloons and cake back into their Denham Springs home.
The Bells have been living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer on the property since being rescued from the second-story deck of their home when water swept through Denham Springs and much of south Louisiana in August 2016.
"The devastation that happened here, it was breathtaking," said Kennedy, who grew up in nearby Zachary. "I've never seen anything like it."
Kennedy, who previously ran for office as a Democrat, made the shift to Republican a decade ago.
The questions surrounding his coyness over his potential candidacy have frustrated some Republicans. Landry publicly called for him to make a decision so the GOP can rally behind a candidate and begin the race against Edwards in earnest. This past week, Louis Gurvich, the head of the Louisiana Republican Party, penned a column published on the conservative website The Hayride, "warning" Republicans about crowding the field in statewide races.
"Considering that Louisiana conservatives are living daily with the grim results of the 2015 gubernatorial election, one would think that the lessons had been learned. Republicans running against each other must be held to a higher political standard and required to stick to relevant issues and avoid mudslinging," Gurvich wrote, referencing the contentious primary campaigns between Republicans Scott Angelle, Jay Dardenne and David Vitter in the lead-up to the runoff that produced Edwards' election as governor.
The wild card in the governor's race, of course, is U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who has said he's not interested in running for governor but saw his party lose control of the House in Tuesday's elections. Scalise, who has represented Louisiana's 1st Congressional District for a decade and is the longest-serving and highest-ranking member of the state's congressional delegation, notified Republican U.S. House members this week that he plans to run for minority whip, but the leadership race remains in question as others jockey to join the ranks.
Kennedy has repeatedly pointed to a poll, commissioned by his political consultants, that shows that if the election were held today, he and Scalise would be the most formidable opponents to Edwards.
"I'm flattered to be in this position," Kennedy said. "I never thought I'd be in this position."
He added that he thinks Scalise will be House speaker one day and that he would help him achieve that rank, if that's what Scalise wants, but he didn't directly address Scalise's gubernatorial prospects.
The poll paid for by Kennedy, and conducted by the respected firm SurveyUSA, showed that in a head-to-head match-up, Kennedy would get 48 percent of the vote to Edwards' 39 percent, with no campaigning having taken place.
Because Louisiana's statewide elections are on an unusual schedule — only Mississippi and Kentucky will also have gubernatorial elections next year — there is expected to be considerable national interest in the race.
After Tuesday's elections, Democrats hold 23 gubernatorial seats and Republicans have 26, with one seat under contest with the Republican candidate leading.
Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, said that the 2019 race in Louisiana is already considered a "top pick-up opportunity for Republicans."
"With the state’s solid red hue combined with President Trump’s 20-point victory in 2016, Gov. Edwards will certainly face a competitive race no matter who Republicans decide to nominate," Thompson said.
Jared Leopold, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, also signaled that it will be a race on the national radar.
"Gov. Edwards is in a strong position for re-election and is one of the most popular governors in America for a reason: He’s working across party lines to get things done for Louisianans,” he said. “The DGA is fully committed to re-electing Gov. Edwards, and he’s proving that putting Louisiana first is a winning strategy for the people of the state."