Gov. John Bel Edwards is walking a thin line. The only Democratic governor in the Deep South is attempting a re-election bid in a state that saw an unprecedented vote tally in favor of Republican Donald Trump for president.
As the governor's race begins to take shape — two Republicans have entered so far — Edwards, 52, appears to be playing up his personal relationship with Trump and a general theme of bipartisanship to try to win a second term.
Edwards seemed to downplay his Democrat status during a recent appearance on WWL Radio's Newell Normand show. Normand, a Republican, was the sheriff of Jefferson Parish before moving to radio, and he notably supported Edwards during the last campaign cycle. His radio audience is largely conservative.
Edwards stressed his belief that long-term solutions can't come from the far right or far left.
"I believe the durable solutions are in the center of the political spectrum," he said. "With Republican majorities in the state House and Senate, we don't get anything done unless it's a bipartisan effort."
He also attempted to make his case for re-election.
"I continue to be very excited about being the governor of our state," he said. "We do have challenges, but I'll tell you we are in a much better place to meet those challenges. We've got a lot of momentum."
Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, who has never held public office before, and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, are the two Republicans who have entered the race so far. The 2019 election will be Oct. 12, with a Nov. 16 runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary. The qualifying period will be Aug. 6-8, and other candidates could get into the race before then.
Edwards, who took office in January 2016, has been the only Democrat invited to White House events on multiple occasions, including the first state dinner of Trump's presidency that honored France and a criminal justice reform summit at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. He was one of two Democratic governors asked to sit at Trump's table when the president met with the National Governors Association at the White House earlier this year.
According to Edwards, Trump has hold him that he's the president's favorite Democrat.
A White House spokesman declined comment for this article.
The governor has often mentioned those interactions and others with the White House in the past two years.
"It's smart politics," said political analyst John Couvillon. "Gov. Edwards needs those conservative voters if he wants a chance to win."
Trump easily won Louisiana with 58 percent of the vote and the highest vote tally any single candidate has every received in the state.
And he has remained popular, despite national polarization over his administration.
"President Trump's popularity hasn't dimmed a bit," Couvillon said.
With the most prominent potential contender officially out of the race, Louisiana Republicans appear to be left without a well-known figure to…
The strategy has had mixed results in recent elections in which Democrats with connections to Trump sought to highlight that as an asset and resisted openly criticizing the president.
Cozying up to Trump worked for West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, thought to be one of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress heading into the midterms.
Manchin pulled off a narrow win deep in Trump country after taking the path of rarely criticizing the president and repeatedly pointing out common positions.
Trump still endorsed Republican Patrick Morrisey in the race against Manchin and held a campaign rally in West Virginia, but the president didn't dispense the type of caustic attacks he's lobbed at other Democrats.
Another Democratic senator who attempted to campaign as a rare Trump ally from across the aisle wasn't so successful.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards took part in a criminal justice summit in Los Angeles on Wednesday that had a broad turnout -- from reality st…
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, whose campaign played up her close relationship with the president, lost her re-election bid after Trump endorsed Republican opponent Kevin Cramer and campaigned for him. Cramer took more than 55 percent of the vote in a state that overwhelmingly supported Trump in the presidential election.
But, as in Manchin's case, Trump refrained from going into attack dog mode against Heitkamp.
"He didn't really go after her with the full extent he could have," Couvillon observed.
Couvillon said he doubts that Edwards will face much backlash from his base over his strategy.
"Louisiana Democrats will be really reluctant to rock the boat," he said.
Mike Henderson, director of the Public Policy Research Lab at LSU, agreed that Edwards' decision not to go on the offensive against Trump and strike a bipartisan chord makes sense in Louisiana, where no other Democrat holds statewide office and the GOP controls both the state House and Senate.
"Louisiana is one of the president's better states," Henderson said. "There's not much for the governor to gain by picking fights with the president."
Henderson said having connections to the president that he can pinpoint helps insulate Edwards from certain types of Republican attacks.
"He can point at things like that. It just makes it harder for a Republican to try to motivate voters around that — he has that moment he can point back to," Henderson said. "If anything, they seem to have a cordial relationship."
Gov. John Bel Edwards has invited President Donald Trump to Louisiana to tour the State Penitentiary at Angola and see ongoing efforts to over…
"It makes strategic sense for the governor not to play up partisanship," he added.
Andrew Bautsch, executive director of the Republican Party of Louisiana, said he doesn't think Republican voters will agree with Edwards' framing. Edwards, who previously represented a Tangipahoa Parish district in the state House, beat then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter in a bitter battle in 2015 that highlighted Vitter's past scandal involving a prostitution ring after two other prominent Republican contenders took Vitter to task in the primary race.
"What he's trying to do is play to the voters who voted him in just because they didn't want to vote for Vitter," Bautsch said. "He knows he needs to pull from our side to win again."
The GOP is already preparing for Edwards' campaign to focus heavily on his military record and conservative positions on guns and abortion, he said.
"It's amazing to me how he can flip-flop from one to the other," Bautsch said. "Our side sees that and we'll call him out on it."
"He's going to have to pick a side," he said.
The Democratic Governors Association, pro-Democrat American Bridge and other national Democratic organizations have identified the Louisiana race among their priorities in the coming year. Republicans on the national stage have as well.
But Batsch said he thinks it would be disingenuous of Edwards to eschew far left policies while accepting the support from a more progressive national party.
"Is he going to take the money and the support of the national Democratic Party or cast them out and say I don't agree with their policies?" he said. "That's where he's going to have to answer the question."
Bautsch said he also doesn't buy Edwards' bipartisan point.
"We have a governor who, from our perspective, has not shown great leadership at all," he said. "The governor wants to say he's done all these things but we've had countless sessions and we've gotten very little done."
"I would love for him to show us where he has stepped across party lines and actually worked with us and not just pushed his agenda," he added.
He said Rispone and Abraham, the Republican challengers so far, and any others who enter the race will run against Edwards' record.
"This is a good time for us to have two good candidates that have a great message," Bautsch said. "They share a frustration with the current administration."
Eric Holl, spokesman for Democratic Coordinated Campaign, said the governor has a strong platform to run on and will be making the case for re-election based on results.
"Louisiana Democrats support Governor Edwards for the same reason so many Louisiana Republicans do — he puts Louisiana first," he said. "Whether it's expanding Medicaid to help 480,000 working-class Louisianians get health care, working across party lines to reform our criminal justice system, or brokering a bipartisan deal that stabilized our budget and cut taxes by $600 million, Louisianians know that Governor Edwards puts politics aside to make our state a better place."