Abortion Louisiana (copy)

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, seen here in a 2015 file photo, said he believes the state's Republicans need to get behind a single candidate to defeat Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, in next year's election. Last week he took himself out of contention for that race.

There are still 13 months before the primary, but Attorney General Jeff Landry says there’s no time to waste. He wants Louisiana Republicans to fall into line behind one strong candidate, preferably without too much pushing and shoving, and focus on taking out Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019.

Ideally, the coalescing should happen within the next two months, if not sooner, Landry said in a recent interview. And if no one else answers the bell, he will.

“If I run, I’ll win,” Landry said — though he insists he’d rather have someone else take up the mantle.

Landry’s clear-the-field prescription has some admirers, among them U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, U.S. House majority whip for the GOP and perhaps the state’s most powerful Republican.

No Republican leader wants to see a reprise of 2015, when Edwards, a little-known Democratic state representative from the hamlet of Amite, dealt the state’s senior U.S. senator, David Vitter, a humiliating defeat, after a primary so bitter that neither of Vitter's GOP rivals endorsed him.

“I think Jeff’s assessment has got a lot of merit to it,” Scalise said. “If we can get behind one candidate, it gives us a much better chance of winning. And I think there are some people who have been talking about it who would make really good candidates.”

Scalise said he will not be a candidate for governor, regardless of the results of November’s midterm elections — in which he is trying desperately to help House Republicans hang onto their majority. With Speaker Paul Ryan’s retirement, Scalise is due to ascend to the House GOP’s No. 2 position, and he could take the top spot. 

Political observers outside the party agree that 2015’s bruising primary was less than ideal for Republicans.

“I definitely think they need a less messy primary,” said Pearson Cross, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “If the Republicans could coalesce around a strong candidate this time, no doubt that would help their chances of winning.”

But even if some people think Landry is onto something, it’s not clear that everyone will heed his direction. Politicians, after all, are often ego-driven creatures, and many of them don’t cotton to the idea of being told what to do.

Lots of possibilities

Right now, at least half a dozen prominent Republicans are eyeing the race. Apart from Landry, they include U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto; state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell; U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville; Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, who owns the contracting firm ISC Constructors; and Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in Baton Rouge and once chief of staff for former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The best known of them is Kennedy, who made clear he won’t be governed by Landry’s shot clock.

“If I decide to run, I’ll run. I don’t care who else is in the race,” said Kennedy, who acknowledged he is seriously considering a bid. “It may not be on the time schedule everyone else would like, but if I decide to run, I’m gonna run.”

Kennedy added that he understands what Landry is trying to achieve but said he thinks focusing on what went wrong for Republicans in 2015 could be a mistake.

“Some people are always running the last race," he said. "I believe competition is a moral good. People keep saying you need to have a single candidate. I don’t see that happening very often. Would it be ideal, in terms of beating an incumbent governor? Yeah. But you can’t stop people from running.”

Kennedy commissioned a poll several months ago, which showed he could beat Edwards.

Landry likes Kennedy's chances, too, but he said he thinks it will be tougher for the next tier of candidates to win. That's because they'd all be starting from a disadvantage in the intertwined challenges of raising money and introducing themselves to voters.

Landry and Kennedy, on the other hand, already have statewide recognition, and roughly $1.2 million and $2.8 million, respectively, in their campaign coffers, according to their most recent reports. Hewitt, by comparison, had just $50,000, while Abraham had about $420,000 on hand.

Hewitt told The Advocate last week that she is “strongly considering” getting into the race and hopes to decide soon, adding that it will be “a data-driven decision.”

Like Kennedy, she seems dubious about winnowing the field on the front end.

“I understand the desire to put all the funding and support behind one candidate,” she said. “But it might be a little contrary to the democratic process.”

Ready to mix it up

Abraham, too, has little use for the one-candidate strategy.

“My decision to run will not be based on anybody else making a decision for me,” he said, adding that he hopes to make up his mind about running after the midterm elections.

Abraham also seemed willing to mix it up with some of his potential intraparty opponents.

“I’m the only one who hasn’t been part of the Baton Rouge good ol’ boys club,” he said. “We rank last in just about everything. If the people who have spent their careers in Baton Rouge could fix it, it would be fixed. We need a fresh perspective — someone who isn’t beholden to special interests and doesn’t have years of favors to pay back.”

In an interview, Waguespack was cagey about his intentions and his timeline, saying only that he is “waiting to see if a person will step forward with a serious plan and the guts to tackle our problems.” If that doesn’t happen, he’ll consider running, he said.

Rispone, meanwhile, is hoping to make up his mind by November. He has already formed an exploratory committee and has been meeting with consultants, business leaders and others to try to make up his mind. Although he’s perhaps the least known of the potential candidates, he’s said he’s willing to commit several million dollars of his own money to the race, which would help him get his name out there.

He said he wishes Scalise would run, and if he did, Rispone would be in his corner. Otherwise, Rispone says, “I would say I would be the better of the candidates talking about it so far.

“Not that they wouldn’t be better than what we have, which is a very blue governor with a very red Legislature,” he added. “The majority of the citizens are red. I think there are multiple candidates that would do a much better job than John Bel Edwards. But it might be a time to consider someone who doesn’t have all the political stuff behind them.”

Although Edwards has some of the same disadvantages he did in 2015 — starting with his party affiliation — he’s obviously a much different candidate this time around. Three years ago, many Democrats saw Edwards as such a "Hail Mary" candidate that they thought the smart play was to get behind the most palatable Republican.

This time around, no one will trifle with Edwards. Though he is a Democrat in a state that went 60-40 for Donald Trump, he is the incumbent, and he has scored job-approval ratings as high as 65 percent in some surveys, according to UL-Lafayette’s Cross. And he already had $5 million in his war chest as of February — more than any of his would-be challengers — and continues to raise more.

In his second rodeo, there’s also the matter of Edwards' record — a double-edged sword, according to observers.

“What Gov. Edwards has that he didn’t have in 2015 is a gubernatorial legacy that he can use to his advantage and his opponents can use to hurt him,” said Joshua Stockley, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “There’s Medicaid expansion, controversial fiscal proposals — all of these are now going to play a prominent role in the campaign.”

'A tough campaign'

In Louisiana’s unusual “jungle primary,” set for October 2019, all candidates face off in a scrum, with the top two finishers heading to the general election the next month. Edwards is a virtual lock to secure one of those two spots, as he did in 2015, though it seems likely his opponents will aim more of their fire at him this time.

But in the general election, political observers expect a much more partisan contest, with the Republican challenger — whoever it is — shining a bright light on Edwards’ party affiliation and seeking to tie him to national Democrats who are unpopular in Louisiana. 

“They’re going to portray him as a progressive, Nancy Pelosi liberal,” Cross predicted. “I expect it to be a nasty, tough campaign.”

“I’m sure he’ll be painted as a flaming liberal Democrat,” said Ed Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans.

Edwards, of course, will try to blunt those attacks by citing his anti-abortion and pro-gun positions, as he did three years ago. Stockley said he thinks Republicans "will have to do more than attack him for being a Democrat. They’re going to have to create their own independent argument as to why the incumbent should not be the governor.”

Chervenak noted that four years ago, Edwards benefited from the unpopularity of Vitter, his opponent, as well as the outgoing Jindal, a Republican whose approval rating was down to 25 percent.

“We found three-quarters of the people who said they disapproved of Jindal said they were going to vote for Edwards,” Chervenak said.

Next year, it will be Edwards’ own legacy that’s on the ballot.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.