It’s probably the first and only time Gov. John Bel Edwards will feel gratified that U.S. Sen. John Kennedy marches to the beat of his own drummer.
The Democratic incumbent’s quest to stay in the Governor’s Mansion for four more years received new life last week when Louisiana’s junior Republican senator declined to challenge him. Polling gave Kennedy a solid advantage over Edwards in a hypothetical match-up, leaving conservative activists tired of the governor's policies hopeful that Kennedy would take the plunge.
But Kennedy historically has done things his way, with an independent streak reflecting the state’s outsized populism. After switching to the GOP over a decade ago, he sometimes strayed off the conservative reservation and also criticized other Republicans.
Kennedy’s decision on the governor's race might have surprised and disappointed many Republican partisans, but it didn’t depart from his established political persona. He said he enjoyed his Senate service, which he would have left after just three years if elected. At 68, he would have become the oldest first-term governor ever elected.
With less than a year left before the next Louisiana governor's election, a number of candidates have announced their candidacy while far more…
But Edwards isn’t out of the woods. Polling also shows more voters, over 40 percent, want someone different heading state government in 2020 than those who favor retaining him. And he presents an easy target, having presided over a largely stagnant state economy — held back by billions of dollars in higher annual taxes paid by Louisianans for a much bigger government redistributing more wealth than ever — during which the country’s economy as a whole grew significantly faster.
Yet Republicans must come up with credible candidates who can remind voters of Edwards' failures. That message won’t lack funding. Plenty of Republican party organizations and allied interest groups can fill the gap. And, one declared GOP candidate to date, businessman Eddie Rispone, foresees spending at least $5 million to make the case against the governor.
Ten months from now, Republicans need widely known candidates associated with a platform of shrinking government, taxes, and the number of those riding in the wagon as opposed to those pulling it. At present, Kennedy alone fits the bill, but for the GOP to regain the top spot, at least one other must emerge.
Additionally, at this point only potential contenders with some name recognition, such as declared candidate and U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, have a real chance to win. As recent history shows, barely known but ultimately successful gubernatorial long shots such as Edwards and former Gov. Mike Foster had served multiple terms in state office and had to start campaigning a couple of years out to win (and former Gov. Bobby Jindal, who held appointive positions in state government, did the same to come within an eyelash of beating out former Gov. Kathleen Blanco before sweeping into his two terms in office).
Louisianans, it turns out, won’t get to vote on whether U.S. Sen. John Kennedy stays in Washington or returns to Baton Rouge as governor.
This means someone like Rispone faces long odds. Louisiana’s populist political culture places disproportionate emphasis on candidate personalities and less on issues, which helps folksy candidates with extensive experience networking among political activists.
To win, the GOP can't have its candidates engaging in internecine warfare. Republicans erred in 2015 when they believed the governorship was theirs regardless of any Democrat running, so they piled on each other during the campaign while ignoring Edwards. From that mistake, they should have learned to make him the sole target of their attacks. That should be made easier this time since the governor has such a lackluster record to defend.
Edwards might breathe a sigh of relief by going from underdog to even money to stick around another four years. But if Republicans make the right moves, he remains quite vulnerable.
Correction: My Nov. 25 column stated that a random sample of all single-person household Medicaid expansion recipients showed an estimated $62 million to $85 million in improper payments. In fact, this sample came from a subset of households with incomes above allowable program limits that represents about one-tenth of all single-person households that received Medicaid through expansion.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.