John Bel Edwards promises not to be 'business-as-usual governor,' vows to end state's fiscal troubles _lowres (copy)

Louisiana State Capitol on inauguration day in January 2016.

The race for Louisiana governor has generated little heat so far, but that seems likely to change beginning this week, when candidates officially qualify for the state’s highest office, less than 10 weeks before the primary.

Also qualifying from Tuesday through Thursday will be candidates for all other statewide offices, the Legislature and local offices on the ballot throughout Louisiana.

As always, the governor’s race will draw most of the interest leading up to the Oct. 12 primary.

What’s most striking after months of campaigning by the three major candidates — Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and his two Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone — is that the dynamics of the race remain unchanged, and no one has produced an attention-getting moment that would generate headlines and television news replays.

Edwards continues to enjoy a healthy lead in polls, followed by Abraham, with Rispone in third place. The latest campaign finance report, for donations through July 1, showed that Edwards and Rispone each had nearly $10 million in the bank — Rispone had loaned most of it to his campaign — while Abraham had less than $2 million.

Under Louisiana’s “jungle primary” system, the three men will face off in the primary, along with anyone else who qualifies next week. Some political insiders predict the governor will win reelection outright in October, while others believe Edwards will be held below 50%, which would force a November runoff with the second-place finisher.

For now, Edwards is in the catbird seat.

“The governor looks like he’s in control of this race and has been,” said Roy Fletcher, a veteran Republican political consultant. “As long as there’s no race, he’s in control. He’s the governor.”

As governor, Edwards has been pro-guns and pro-life on abortion but also willing to raise sales taxes and other levies to balance the state’s budget after inheriting a billion-dollar deficit from his predecessor, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican.

Edwards expanded Medicaid to the working poor, which has benefited more than 400,000 residents, and has sided with trial attorneys in lawsuits that blame oil and gas companies in part for the state's eroding coast. This year, he pushed the Legislature to raise teacher pay by $1,000 and increase funding for early childhood education by $20 million.

In two forums on Thursday, the power of Edwards’ incumbency was on full display. The governor, having received the support of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association four years ago, spoke to that group in Baton Rouge and pointed to increased funding he won for sheriffs’ offices, and to legislation he signed that will raise sheriffs’ pay over the next several years.

At the Monroe Civic Center later that day, Edwards won applause from the Louisiana Municipal Association when he touted his decision to expand Medicaid, which he credits with keeping rural hospitals from closing.

Abraham attacked the governor for limiting a significant tax break known as ITEP that Louisiana offers to industry and for giving local governments the right to reject requests for those breaks. But the LMA officials applauded the governor’s comments about the changes and gave him a standing ovation after the forum ended.

Conspicuously absent from both forums was Rispone. That left Abraham and Edwards to duke it out over taxes and criminal justice reform, exchanges that occasionally became testy.

But Edwards evoked a smile and a nod from his Republican opponent when he took a shot at Rispone, opening his stump speech before the LMA by saying, “There’s a third guy out there, but he’s not showing up.”

Rispone was busy with campaign events in Baton Rouge on Thursday, said his spokesman, Anthony Ramirez, who declined to specify the nature of the events.

The governor’s race seemed to be kicking into high gear four weeks ago when Edwards initiated his TV ad campaign, and the Republican Governors Association began attacking him in two ads. One ad featured clips showing Edwards stating three different times during the 2015 campaign that he didn’t plan to raise taxes.

The commercials undoubtedly reminded many voters that the governor is up for reelection this year, but they don’t appear to have altered the race’s trajectory yet.

The biggest recent development was the long-awaited kickoff of an ad campaign by Rispone, who has been a big donor to Republican candidates over the years but has never sought office before.

In both his ads, Rispone wrapped President Donald Trump in a tight embrace and took aim at one of the president’s avowed targets by promising to end taxpayer benefits for immigrants here illegally.

Rispone, whose war chest dwarfs that of Abraham, is counting on the ads to introduce himself to voters and begin to propel him past Abraham, who represents the state's rural northeast and much of the Florida Parishes in Congress.

No independent poll has emerged to say whether Rispone’s ads are working, although one person who has seen a poll said he is indeed gaining on Abraham.

Anecdotally, Republicans also are expressing skepticism about Rispone’s focus on Trump.

Scott McKay, publisher of The Hayride, a conservative website, said readers have deluged him with emails and messages about the ads.

“It’s clear most of you are not impressed with those ads and see them as a missed opportunity for Rispone to make a big splash with the electorate in Louisiana,” McKay wrote in a column on Thursday.

McKay allowed, though, that the ads could prove to be more effective than the skeptics believe.

John Couvillon, an independent Baton Rouge-based pollster, questioned whether Rispone’s gambit to tie himself to Trump, who is popular among Republicans in Louisiana, would help him among Democrats or independents.

Couvillon noted that U.S. Sen. David Vitter cruised to reelection in 2010 in part by nationalizing the campaign, tying his Democratic opponent to then-President Barack Obama.

Vitter tried the same tactic in the 2015 governor’s race, but this time it didn’t stick. Long the front-runner, Vitter limped into the runoff and lost badly to Edwards, who had been a state representative from Amite with a long-shot chance to win the governor's race.

“One of the things that’s different for a governor’s race versus a Senate race is that the governor is a very visible public official in Louisiana,” Couvillon. “As such, people are much more interested in the governor’s stances on issues as well as the governor’s personality.”

Some Republicans believe that Rispone will not even qualify for governor this week if his private polling doesn’t show him gaining ground against Abraham.

Ramirez said Rispone will go the distance and win.

Abraham, a folksy veterinarian and doctor from Richland Parish, near Monroe, is planning to launch his television campaign soon. He has been earning news coverage by trotting out endorsements by prominent Republicans.

Super PACs, which can raise unlimited amounts from donors, are expected to soon unleash negative ads against one candidate or another.

Abraham and Rispone are both criticizing Edwards for the tax increases that he sought and that were approved by the Republican-majority Legislature. The tax increases have helped Edwards crow that the state has finished the past two fiscal years with a $300 million surplus.

Abraham and Rispone both have panned Edwards for the fact that Louisiana has several thousand fewer jobs today than when he took office in January 2016.

Both men have called for cutting taxes, but have yet to explain whose taxes they would cut and what government services they would reduce to pay for the tax cuts.

Among the other people expected to qualify for governor next week is Gary Landrieu, a political independent who is a cousin of Mitch and Mary Landrieu but has little money or campaign presence.

Others expected to qualify next week include all the Republican incumbents who hold statewide office: Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain, Treasurer John Schroder, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon and Attorney General Jeff Landry.

Donelon is the only one facing a serious challenge from a Republican: Tim Temple, a former insurance industry executive who is now a businessman in Baton Rouge.

The state Democratic Party last week identified candidates for only three statewide offices: Derrick Edwards for treasurer, Gwen Collins-Greenup for secretary of state, and Charlie Greer and Marguerite Green for secretary of agriculture.

Also qualifying will be candidates for 63 of the state's 64 sheriffs — not the Orleans Parish sheriff — and all of the Legislature’s 144 seats. Term limits are forcing 16 senators and 30 House members out of office.

Qualifying for his former House seat in northeast Louisiana will be state Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi. If he wins and serves out his term, he will have served 50 years, or longer than anyone else in the Legislature’s history.

Capitol news bureau staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this article.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.