Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham is running for governor against Gov. John Bel Edwards next year, the two-term congressman announced on Wednesday — the latest development in a rapidly congealing election less than a year away.
But after most major GOP players have said they don't plan to challenge the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, Abraham's announcement signaled that Republicans are starting with an uphill climb in their efforts to unseat Edwards.
Abraham's campaign owns the domain whoisralphabraham.com and ran an introductory campaign ad across the state in October even though his opposition in the Congressional race was largely nominal.
"I’m running for governor, and I intend to win,” Abraham, 64, said in a brief statement on Monday.
Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, 69, is the only other Republican to make a formal leap into the 2019 gubernatorial race so far. On Monday, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, once thought a likely frontrunner for the chance to face Edwards in a runoff election, announced that he would not be on next year's ballot.
In a statement released shortly after Abraham's announcement, Edwards, who took office in 2016 and the only Democrat state-wide office holder in Louisiana, said he welcomes the challenge but wasted no time taking aim at Abraham.
"Rep. Abraham said he couldn’t launch a campaign for governor because it would distract him from important work on the farm bill, soy bean crisis, looming government shutdown, flood insurance expiration and other issues the people of Louisiana have entrusted him to handle on their behalf. None of those issues have been resolved," Edwards said. "Now, just a few days later, he’s abandoning those responsibilities along with the congressional office he was re-elected to exactly one month ago. For the sake of the people of Louisiana, it is my hope that he seriously considers whether or not he is capable of running for governor while fulfilling his duties in Washington."
Abraham indicated Monday that he would spend this week and next focusing on his job in Washington.
The timeline shifted to give voters confidence in the GOP's upcoming battle against Edwards, Abraham spokesman Cole Avery said.
"Doc's preference was to focus on closing out this term and then announce the campaign, but the voters in Louisiana needed assurances that they would have a strong conservative alternative to a liberal like John Bel Edwards," he said. "He has answered that call to serve and is looking forward to focusing on solving actual problems so that our state can move forward."
Avery dismissed questions about the changed schedule, including by the governor, as an attempt to fabricate an issue.
"Democrats would rather talk about anything other than their failed administration," he said.
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. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, has said she is still mulling a run.
Republicans on the national level have already identified next year's election in Louisiana as a priority.
The University of Virginia's Center for Politics on Wednesday released its analysis of the 2019 match-ups and categorized its forecast in the race as "leans Democrat" because of Edwards' incumbency and lack of major scandal.
But forecasters also noted that the race "could become a toss-up in a hurry given how red Louisiana is."
A military veteran, Abraham is a doctor, veterinarian and pilot who still runs occasional missions for the U.S. Coast Guard. His third term in the U.S. House will start in January, and he will not have to give up his seat in Congress to run for governor.
In his minute-long biographical ad, which ran throughout the state thanks to his stretched district that includes Monroe and Alexandria dips down near Lafayette and Baton Rouge and through the Florida Parishes, Abraham talks about his faith, family, military service and how he went from farmer to veterinarian to doctor.
Those who know Abraham frequently tell stories about how he has personally helped them, their families and people they know.
Jeb Andrews, of Monroe, knew of Abraham through mutual acquaintances and his work with Pilots for Patients-Monroe, a non-profit through which pilots donate their time and resources to people who need medical treatment in distant locations.
But when Andrews's 18-year-old son, Mason, ran into issues overseas after he set out on a recent record-breaking flight around the world, Abraham came to the family's aid.
"Next thing I know, he's calling up and giving any help he could offer," Andrews, 53, said. "It was something that I couldn't believe a man of his position had the time to do."
"He didn't know if I was a Republican, Democrat or anything in between, he just wanted to help my kid," added Andrews, who owns a medical research company.
Abraham's Congressional campaign raised about $880,000 during 2017 and through this October. He ended the most recent reporting period with about $170,000 in the bank, which cannot be directly transferred to a campaign for state office but could be shifted to a supportive political action committee to bolster his efforts.
An analysis by Washington-based Roll Call earlier this year put Abraham's net worth at about $4.8 million.
Jim Lopez, an Opelousas attorney, said he's known Abraham since before he ran for Congress. "One of the things that has impressed me most about him is his genuine concern for people," he said.
Lopez recalled a recent event in Opelousas where Abraham struck up a conversation with a veteran. After chatting for a while about their backgrounds, the man noted to Abraham that he had a bad cut on his finger that wouldn't heal, Lopez said.
"He took a look at it and was able to detect the circulation was just about gone," Lopez said.
Abraham made a call and was able to get the man an appointment at the local veteran's hospital, Lopez said.
"He explained that it was a critical situation," Lopez said. "Not only did he do that, but he called back to check on him."
Lopez said he doesn't know Edwards.
"I just think that Dr. Abraham's political philosophy is more in line with mine," he said.