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Gov. John Bel Edwards

While Republicans are angling to find an opponent to challenge the reelection of the only Democratic governor in the Deep South, some of the GOP’s biggest names are aligning with Gov. John Bel Edwards.

They include a former GOP gubernatorial candidate, two top aides to former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and several of the party’s A-List donors. Edwards faces reelection in October 2019.

“The governor was dealt a hard hand to play and he’s done a great job,” said Jay Blossman, of Mandeville. “If he was a far-left, screaming liberal, you’d have a problem … But he’s not. He’s willing to work (with) both sides.”

The former chairman of the Public Service Commission ran as a Republican for governor in 2003 and flirted with a run in 2007. He gave Edwards’ campaign the maximum $5,000 in December 2017.

For Blossman, who Edwards appointed in June to the LSU Board of Supervisors, it doesn’t matter who else is in the race.

Not every Republican agrees with the few who back Edwards.

Louis Gurvich, who chairs the Louisiana Republican Party, noted the state has well over 900,000 voters registered with the GOP.

“When you’re talking those numbers there are going to be some people, inevitably, who are going to be voting for candidates who are not Republican. There’s not much you can do about that,” Gurvich said. “I feel confident we’ll have plenty of Republicans to support the Republican candidate.”

So far, Republican businessman Eddie Rispone, of Baton Rouge, is the only announced opponent.

U.S. Sen. John N. Kennedy, of Madisonville, said he would announce his intentions on Monday. And U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, says he’s leaning towards running but will decide by Jan. 1.

Tim Barfield is close friends with some of the potential GOP candidates and their supporters. That’s made it more uncomfortable for him to line up behind Edwards.

“He has been willing to talk and compromise,” said Barfield, who was Jindal’s executive counsel and secretary for the Louisiana Department of Revenue.

For instance, Edwards has been willing to compromise on changes he made to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, or ITEP, which forgives local property taxes for manufacturing projects. The governor didn’t go as far as Barfield wanted, but the changes Edwards endorsed showed that he had listened to the business community’s concerns, Barfield said.

Barfield now is president of CSRS, Inc. a regional civil engineering firm that holds a lot of government contracts to develop infrastructure and facilities planning. CSRS gave the maximum $5,000 on Oct. 31, 2016.

Another top Jindal aide, former Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater, also is unequivocally backing Edwards reelection. Now a lobbyist, Rainwater represented business interests through some tense negotiations during the past year over taxes and exemptions.

“I know what budgets look like,” said Rainwater, whose role as commissioner made him the state's chief budget architect from 2010 to 2012. “He simply states the issues.”

Rainwater contends Edwards' plain talking and pragmatic approach won him support among many business executives and that is likely to be reflected in campaign finance filings. “People are going to be surprised when the reports go public,” he added.

Campaigns are required to disclose their donors to the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Reports for 2016 and 2017 are available. Richard Zuschlag, chairman and CEO of Acadian Ambulance in Lafayette, Ruston trucking magnate James Davison, Baton Rouge builder Wayne Brown and former Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand are all listed as donors.

The reports for 2018 will become public in February.

Eric Holl, spokesman for the 2019 Democratic Coordinated Campaign, would not divulge the names of givers to Edwards in 2018. 

When it comes to awarding contracts and setting regulatory policies, a Louisiana governor generally has more power than chief executives in other states. So, it behooves businessmen to adopt an outlook more practical than partisan when it comes to supporting a gubernatorial candidate, said G. Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana Lafayette. And sometimes that means spreading contributions across several campaigns.

New Orleans banker and developer Joe Canizaro held an event for the governor in October but texted Thursday that “at this time I do not know who I am going to support.”

Craig Spohn, head of the Cyber Innovation Center in Bossier City, gave Edwards $5,000 but hasn’t made up his mind yet.

“It’s too early. The field hasn’t come into formation,” Spohn said.

However, Spohn said he appreciates Edwards’ willingness to work with him and other business colleagues in northwest Louisiana. The governor set aside money to build a more direct route from the interstates to the U.S. Air Force base that is the region’s largest employer. Edwards also found money for the Bossier Parish Community College, which trains workers.

Richard Lipsey, a Baton Rouge businessman, is helping to put together a duck hunting event for the governor in January. The weekend is expected to raise about $250,000 from Republicans and Democrats.

Lipsey and his family have given about $297,026 to mostly GOP candidates. He was one of the first Republicans to support Edwards in the 2015 campaign.

This time around, Lipsey says wherever he goes, and the chat turns to politics, businessmen are saying they are quietly backing Edwards. “These are very influential people. They don’t pick losers,” Lipsey said.

Lee Mallett, a Lake Charles businessman who along with his family has contributed $244,073, mostly to Republican candidates and causes, says he’s a friend of Kennedy and didn’t support Edwards in 2015. And he wasn’t prepared to change sides for 2019.

But Mallett worked with the governor on some projects and came to respect the governor. He’ll be backing Edwards regardless of who else is in the race.

“If he keeps working hard like he has and unless he does something crazy – and I don’t see that happening – I am supporting John Bel Edwards,” he said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.