BRkennedyclass102018_2

U.S. Senator John Kennedy spoke to an American Government class at Denham Springs High Friday October 19, 2018. Kennedy talked about the federal budget, Kavanaugh hearings, Puerto Rico hurricane recovery, the Middle East and other topics. ORG XMIT: BAT1810191413448020

Ladies and gentlemen, we finally have ourselves a governor’s race. Or more likely, we don’t, at least not much of one.

There’s been a strain of Republican thought ever since John Bel Edwards, a little-known legislator from Amite and a Democrat in a Republican state, won big the last time around. It goes like this: Edwards’ victory was an aberration, an outgrowth less of his own skills than the GOP’s divisive primary fight — in which three candidates attacked one another for the privilege of facing and presumably beating Edwards without laying a glove on him — and runoff opponent David Vitter’s fatal flaws. Any well-placed Republican should be able to dispatch him in 2019.

The opposite theory is that Edwards ran a smart campaign and won clean, that a majority of voters assessed him and liked what they saw, and that he’s continued to earn support in office.

U.S. Sen. John Kennedy’s long-awaited announcement Monday that he will not challenge Edwards next year bolsters the latter theory. In some ways, it’s about Kennedy. But it’s also very much about Edwards.

Kennedy was actually never the Republicans’ best option to take on Edwards. That would have been Steve Scalise, the popular House Republican whip who reiterated after Republicans lost the House in the mid-terms elections that he would not run.

Kennedy’s more of a job-hopper. He was just elected to the Senate on his third try in 2016, and as Edwards’ supporters have been relentlessly pointing out, he has far more network interviews than legislative accomplishments to show for his short tenure. While he has the name recognition to go head-to-head with a sitting governor, he also has critics within GOP ranks, including some of the party’s big donors. And there’s a real question over whether he has the appetite to do the work that the job entails, when he seems to enjoy nothing more than lobbing colorfully crafted complaints from the sidelines.

The bigger factor here, though, is likely Edwards’ strength as a candidate. He absolutely got lucky in his opponent the last time around, but he was also good — and has built on voters’ goodwill in office.

Edwards blunted criticism that he might be too liberal for Louisiana during the campaign by embracing gun rights and opposing abortion, and he hasn’t wavered from those positions. And he slowly and steadily solidified his standing by handling disasters with competence and compassion, by working to dig Louisiana out of the deep financial hole that Bobby Jindal had left behind, by keeping campaign promises to expand Medicaid and reduce the state’s nation-leading prison population, and by reaching across party lines to those who were willing to work with him, all the way up to President Donald Trump. While he raised taxes, he did so with the grudging cooperation of a GOP-controlled Legislature.

He hasn’t done everything he wanted to do. There’s been no structural fiscal reform, and lawmakers have blocked his efforts to slightly raise the minimum wage and chip away at the gender gap on wages. But the TOPS scholarships and public/private hospitals are on more stable footing than when he arrived, and there’s been a steady stream of economic development announcements.

Besides, a lot of people just seem to like the guy. That’s what the polls show, anyway.

He won’t get a free ride, of course. Eddie Rispone, a wealthy Baton Rouge businessman, has declared his candidacy and is expected to put up millions of dollars. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham says he’ll decide soon, and others could still sign up too. And with few big races in other states next year, there should be plenty of national money in the mix.

But all remaining potential challengers start way behind where Kennedy, a longtime state treasurer with a big fundraising base and even bigger public profile, would have begun. While a Kennedy-Edwards race would have been a battle of equals, anyone left to challenge Edwards now has to start off by establishing the stature to go up against a sitting governor.

As Edwards’ first election showed, anything can happen once qualifying begins. Still, if the pros really thought the governor can be easily picked off, surely more people would be lining up to do the picking.

Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.