With less than 15 months until Election Day and no Republican campaigns launched against Gov. John Bel Edwards' re-election bid, Attorney General Jeff Landry is ramping up the pressure on other potential candidates.
"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 said in an interview with USA Today Network that was published online Wednesday and during which he expressed his own growing interest in running for governor without announcing his candidacy.
Landry's comments come amid months of speculation over who will emerge as the GOP's best chance to unseat the only Democratic governor in the Deep South and Louisiana's only statewide elected Democrat. Landry, who has been a frequent foe of Edwards, has mostly demurred in past speculation about his own possible candidacy, but in the recent interview he called on one possible GOP challenger to hurry up with his decision and another to re-evaluate his chances.
"We don't have a candidate who has said (he or she) is running who has been able to unite the (Republican) party (against Edwards)," Landry said. "So that has caused me to reconsider. It has caused me to re-evaluate the political landscape."
Edwards, who was seen as a long shot candidate for governor before defeating Republican David Vitter in 2015, quickly announced his re-election bid after taking office.
With no clear challenger, Edwards has had months to attempt to woo support from business leaders, farmers, educators and others through listening tours and public events. He also has set out on an aggressive fundraising push — Edwards reported more than $5 million in his campaign coffers at the end of 2017, which was the most recent campaign finance reporting period.
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said Wednesday that the governor is "focused on doing his job."
"Right now, more people are working in Louisiana than ever before, our unemployment is at a 10-year low, last week the federal government announced that our economy grew faster than 35 states and Medicaid expansion is saving lives and creating jobs," Carbo said. "Those are results that the people of Louisiana deserve. The governor will continue to work across the aisle to put Louisiana first because that’s what he was elected to do.”
Landry's political strategist Brent Littlefield confirmed to The Advocate that Landry's interest in the race has grown amid encouragement from Republican supporters anxious to see a front-runner emerge.
Citing recent low marks on "best states to do business" lists and the state's unemployment rate, Littlefield said Landry disagrees with the Edwards' administration's characterization of a growing economy.
"Jeff is increasingly frustrated with the governor, who claims he is a moderate but governs like a liberal," he said. "As someone who has a background as a job creator and small business owner prior to his service as attorney general ... it's greatly concerning to Jeff that Louisiana struggles economically under this governor."
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, 2019 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.
Edwards has frequently clashed with Landry and other Republicans who have been mentioned as possible challengers.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, a Republican who previously served as state treasurer and has been another vocal critic of Edwards, recently said he is still "seriously thinking about" running for governor next year, but he has declined to answer definitively.
Landry said if running for governor is "what (Kennedy) wants to do, let's get on with it."
Kennedy's U.S. Senate spokeswoman referred The Advocate to his campaign for comment in response to Landry's remarks and the senator's current position on running. The Kennedy campaign did not respond to The Advocate's request.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, also has expressed interest in possibly jumping into the race but has not made a formal campaign announcement.
Landry appeared to question whether the two-term congressman, who is currently running for his third term to the U.S. House this fall, can generate enough support to successfully challenge Edwards.
"My goal is to see a united front behind a single candidate," Landry said. "I'm not trying to clear the field for Jeff Landry. It doesn't have to be me, but it may be me."
"Ralph may end up being that candidate, but since he's expressed interest there hasn't been a lot of circling the wagons around him," Landry said.
Landry was not available to speak directly to The Advocate on Wednesday.
"There's no doubt if I run I will beat John Bel Edwards, and you can tell him I said that," Landry told USA Today Network.
Abraham spokesman Cole Avery said that the congressman, who is up for re-election to represent Louisiana's 5th District, is "100 percent committed to being reelected to the House and he's focused on that election."
"There are no announced candidates for governor, other than the current governor. I don't know why there would be any groundswell around anyone who hasn't announced yet," Avery said of the 2019 governor's race. "I think most of the voters are focused on this fall, too."
But Avery said that Abraham is being encouraged to enter the race.
"It doesn't matter where he goes, people are encouraging him to run because they are fed up with the direction that the state is heading in now," he said.
And Avery admitted Abraham is frustrated by Louisiana's progress on the state level.
"He's not seeing any positive change in the lives of the people themselves, and you can't just expect to keep doing the same thing and get new results," Avery said. "That's what's been going on a long time in Baton Rouge."