The governor’s race began unofficially 11 months ago, when U.S. Sen. John Kennedy released a written statement.

“I will not be a candidate for governor in 2019,” Kennedy wrote, in a decision that cleared the field for lesser-known Republican candidates to get in.

At the time, businessman Eddie Rispone was the only Republican running for governor. But U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham responded to Kennedy’s news by entering the race two days later.

Although it wasn’t known at the time, Abraham’s announcement set the field. He and Rispone would be the only two Republicans to challenge Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

The governor’s race has now entered its final weekend before election day on Saturday.

Edwards is attempting to defy the laws of political gravity for the second time and remain as the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, and the only Democrat in Louisiana to hold statewide office.

A recent analysis by Michael Henderson, a professor of political science at LSU, noted that since 2007, Democratic statewide candidates have received 39% of the vote, on average, when facing Republican candidates.

Edwards will have to beat that average by at least 11 percentage points to win. He did so handily four years ago, hauling in 56% of the vote over then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican. That was easily the best result by a Democrat against a Republican in the time that period Henderson studied.

Over the past 11 months, Abraham, Rispone and Edwards combined have spent well over $20 million on TV commercials, direct mail pieces and digital ads for the right to live for the next four years in the Governor’s Mansion and occupy the governor’s 4th floor office in the State Capitol.

Gumbo PAC, which supports Edwards, has spent millions more attacking the Republican candidates, while the Republican Governors Association and Truth in Politics, which was founded by Rispone pal Lane Grigsby, have spent millions soiling Edwards.

During the primary, Rispone dipped into his own considerable fortune to introduce himself to voters as a fervent supporter of President Donald Trump and, beginning in September, to bludgeon Abraham with attacks that the Republican congressman and his supporters said were lies.

Truthful or not, the attack ads worked. Rispone leapfrogged Abraham to finish second in the primary and face off against Edwards in the runoff.

At this point in the 2015 governor’s race, all polls showed Edwards with a clear lead over Vitter.

This time, no one can predict with certainty whether Edwards or Rispone will triumph on Saturday.

Pollster and demographer John Couvillon has identified two keys to the outcome: Can Edwards win 10% of the Abraham voters, and can he bump up the relatively low turnout of African-American voters in the primary by at least 2 percentage points?

If Edwards can achieve both goals, Couvillon believes, he will narrowly win re-election.

Voter interest in the runoff seems higher than in the primary when turnout was 45.9%, according to the Secretary of State’s office. Couvillon is projecting a turnout of at least 52% in the runoff, given the high numbers of people voting early.

Edwards’ strategy has been consistent throughout the campaign. He has repeatedly highlighted how he worked with the Republican-majority Legislature to solve a budget deficit inherited from Gov. Bobby Jindal, to raise teacher pay for the first time in a decade, to pass a package of bills that have ended Louisiana’s status as the nation’s biggest jailer and to invest more money in early childhood education.

“Governor Edwards’ bipartisan budget saved the TOPS (college scholarship) program and protected funding for our universities and community colleges,” the Edwards campaign said in a recent mailer.

On his own, Edwards signed an executive order extending Medicaid to about 450,000 working poor people, a move applauded by liberals and the health care industry.

“While rural hospitals are closing around the country, Governor Edwards ensured that not a single rural hospital in Louisiana closed its doors, creating jobs and saving lives,” the mailer also said.

Rispone faced a difficult task when he started the race last October, because no one in political circles, other than a handful of Republican insiders, knew him. The electrical contractor had donated more than $1 million to conservative causes – especially involving education – and GOP candidates.

Rispone had a compelling personal story to tell. Born into a modest Baton Rouge household, he worked to pay his way through LSU. He later founded a company with two others to help build industrial plants that he says has grown to almost 4,000 employees.

“I think we can do better,” Rispone told the Associated Press last October. “I know we can do better."

Abraham announced his candidacy just after winning re-election to a third term in a congressional district that covers northeast Louisiana and extends south to the Florida Parishes.

The scoop on state politics in your inbox

Get the Louisiana politics insider details once a week from us. Sign up today.

He, too, had a compelling personal story. He grew up on a farm in Richland Parish near Monroe, served in the National Guard, became a veterinarian, went to medical school to become a doctor and has used his skill as a pilot to fly missions for the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Abraham decided to run for governor in December, a spokesman said, because “the voters in Louisiana needed assurances that they would have a strong conservative alternative to a liberal like John Bel Edwards.” Abraham “has answered that call to serve and is looking forward to focusing on solving actual problems so that our state can move forward."

For months, neither candidate inspired Republican insiders.

In May during a flight aboard Air Force One to Louisiana, Trump encouraged U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the second-highest ranking Republican in the House to run for governor. Scalise stayed out.

Edwards led the field throughout the primary, buoyed by $10 million that he had assiduously raised since becoming governor in January 2016, including contributions from trial lawyers, health care companies, video poker companies and small business owners.

The biggest question was whether Edwards would top 50% in the primary and win re-election outright. The second-biggest question was if he didn’t capture 50%, which Republican would finish second.

Abraham had one major advantage over Rispone: he was well-liked in his congressional district and had a solid conservative voting record. But Rispone, by putting up what would be at least $12 million of his own money, stood to dramatically outspend Abraham.

The congressman responded by running a retail campaign where he locked up the support of Republican activists throughout the state and rolled out key endorsements to gain regular coverage in the media.

The strategy worked throughout most of the primary as Abraham led Rispone, who in his initial TV ads repeatedly pledged his fealty to Trump and portrayed himself as a conservative outsider.

The fight between the two Republicans changed on Sept. 16. That’s when Rispone launched a sharp-elbowed attack ad that accused Abraham of lying in a campaign promise to donate his congressional salary to charity and slammed him for missing more votes while running for governor than any other congressman.

The ad said Abraham had voted more than 300 times with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a conservative foe, and concluded by calling Abraham a “typical politician.”

Abraham immediately called foul. Conservative radio show host Moon Griffon ended his neutrality by endorsing Abraham and so did U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre.

“By attacking Ralph Abraham, Rispone’s campaign may direct more votes towards John Bel Edwards, boosting his chances of winning in the first round,” state Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, wrote in The Hayride, a conservative website, nine days after the ad first appeared.

But Rispone’s attacks and 8-1 spending advantage over Abraham steadily pulled votes from the congressman to the electrical contractor.

On the day before the primary, Trump went to Lake Charles to rev up conservative voters by trashing the governor and denouncing Democratic efforts to impeach him.

On election day, Oct. 12, Edwards had lunch at Mandina’s in New Orleans – just he had on the day he won four year earlier – and seemed buoyant about his chances.

But Edwards won only 46.6%, compared to 27.4% for Rispone and 23.6% for Abraham.

Since then, Rispone has continued to rely on a barrage of TV ads while mostly keeping his distance from reporters and providing few specifics on what he would do if elected governor, other than pledging to convene a constitutional convention.

Edwards is trying to peel away Abraham voters – 10% of them would shift 32,000 voters into his column. Increasing the turnout of African-American voters from 27.6% in the primary to 29% in the runoff would generate another 50,000 to 60,000 votes for Edwards.

Edwards’ outraised Rispone during the most recent reporting period, from Sept. 23 – Oct. 27 – $5.2 million versus $3 million, plus another $500,000 for Rispone that he loaned his campaign.

James Carville, trial attorney Calvin Fayard and Ochsner chief executive officer Warner Thompson have all hosted Edwards fund-raisers in recent days in New Orleans.

But Rispone has the biggest gun of all behind him.

On Nov. 6, Trump went to Monroe to rally voters in Abraham’s district, especially during the early voting period since many Abraham voters had voted early in the primary. The president predicted that voters would send Edwards packing.

"You're going out to replace a radical, liberal Democrat," Trump said. "John Bel Edwards has not done a good job. You're going to have great new Republican, a tremendously successful man Eddie Rispone."

The president is scheduled to make a similar appearance to Bossier City on Thursday night, two days before the runoff.

Email Tyler Bridges at