BATON ROUGE — It may seem early to be talking about the next gubernatorial election in 2019, but here in the Louisiana State Capitol it's never to soon to begin handicapping a political horse race.
Though public opinion polls give Gov. John Bel Edwards high marks now, he is the lone statewide elected Democrat. As such, he is an anomaly — and a target.
"I'm not losing any sleep over it," Edwards told USA Today Network this week.
But in deeply Republican red Louisiana, being a Democrat is precarious, so potential GOP challengers are beginning to jockey for position, whether it be as critics of Edwards or as champions of smaller government.
"Somebody is going to run," Edwards said. "The best thing I can do is the best possible job for the people of Louisiana and let them decide."
Might the challengers be household names like U.S. Sen. John Kennedy or Attorney General Jeff Landry? Or will someone emerge from the statehouse like Rep. Lance Harris or Sens. Bret Allain or Sharon Hewitt.
Perhaps it could be a surprise candidate like LABI President Stephen Waguespack or Congressmen Ralph Abraham or Garret Graves.
The early list of potential contenders is long and in some cases surprising. Though most were coy about their interest, none ruled themselves out. See what they had to say when asked.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy: The freshman senator has been a consistent critic of Edwards. His continued public input on the Louisiana budget and other state issues could be construed as interest in returning home for the top spot.
“I just got elected in the U.S. Senate. I’m doing my very best to represent the people of Louisiana," Kennedy said. "I’m honored to be there, and I’m tired of elections. I just went through an election. I want to serve. I have no comment about any elections right now whatsoever.”
Attorney General Jeff Landry: A frequent foil of Edwards, Landry has elevated his in-state profile by being active in state legislation and aligning himself with President Donald Trump. But many of Landry's hot button issues like opposing sanctuary cities are more national than parochial, leading some to believe Landry may prefer to run for Kennedy's Senate seat if Kennedy won the governor's race.
"I'm flattered to be included in the conversation," Landry said. "It's amazing there's so much interest when the governor hasn't completed half of his term. It must speak to the governor's performance."
Fifth District U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham: Perhaps a surprise to some, but there is a consensus among the delegation that the two-term representative has been among Louisiana's most effective members of Congress. He's wildly popular within his sprawling district with Monroe and Alexandria as the population hubs.
"I've received a lot of encouragement from across the state from people who are ready for a shakeup in Baton Rouge," Abraham said.
Sixth District U.S. Rep. Garret Graves: Graves has escalated a war with Edwards over the way the governor has handled flood recovery. The two have had heated public exchanges and this week accused each other of lying about being accessible for recent meetings about flood recovery. As a former top administration official for former Gov. Bobby Jindal, Graves knows his way around state politics.
“I’m focused on flood recovery," Graves said in a statement. "None of this governor talk helps flood victims. In fact, none of the governor’s talk is helping flood victims.”
From the statehouse
State Rep. Lance Harris of Alexandria: Harris has become the voice of House Republicans and a leading obstructionist of Edwards' agenda, especially concerning taxes. The central Louisiana businessman believes state government has grown beyond its means.
"I'd never rule anything out, but I'd have to get it past my wife," Harris said. "Right now my focus is on this session and getting Louisiana pointed in the right direction. The governor and I have different philosophies at work. I want to control the size of government, if not shrink it."
Sen. Bret Allain of Franklin: Allain is a wealthy planter, businessman and outdoorsman with a similar profile of former two-term Republican Gov. Mike Foster, who ascended from the same Senate seat Allain now holds.
"It's way too early, but people asked me about it even before the last election," Allain said. "I always keep my options open, but the biggest factor now is my wife, who might divorce me if I decide to climb another mountain."
Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell: Hewitt, a mechanical engineer and former Shell Oil Co. executive, has made an impression as a studious lawmaker who asks thoughtful, probing questions, especially concerning the budget.
"I've had people ask me about it and I tell them I plan to continue to work hard and do what's best for the state and evaluate any opportunities that may be available to me in the future," Hewitt said. "I bring a unique set of experience with a strong corporate business background, and to the extent I can offer those leadership skills in another role I'd be open to that."
Stephen Waguespack, president, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry: Waguespack, another former top Jindal administration official, considers himself a policy wonk. His group is expected to lead the charge against Edwards commercial activity tax proposal that will get its first committee hearing Monday.
"I've heard that rumor, too, but I think it's way too early to be thinking about politics," Waguespack said. "It's all about policy now. I don't think it's appropriate to be talking about the election right now."