While there might be a fair share of haters and doubters in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ national fan club appears to be growing. Donors on the corporate level say the Democratic Governors Association, in particular, has labeled Edwards as a star player whenever its bench comes into question. That bench isn’t as long as it could be; there are currently 15 Democratic governors in the United States, excluding American Samoa and Puerto Rico. In the latest polling from Morning Consult, Edwards had the fourth highest approval rating, 53 percent, among that 15-governor bunch. He was also just four points shy of being tied for first place with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who notched 57 percent. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had second place with 55 percent and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper trailed in third with 54 percent. Of these top four Democratic governors, Edwards has been in the office for the shortest period of time.
And he raised more money during his first year than his most recent predecessors. In other words, there’s a reason why he’s moving closer to the front of the DGA’s bench. In fact, the association has once again asked Edwards to host a Christmas party in New Orleans for his gubernatorial counterparts. Some of Edwards’ campaign contributors have been hit up for the December shindig — and, frankly, a few sound excited about aiding the governor’s national profile. Speaking of profiles, a sizable feature story about Edwards will be published in Governing magazine in January. The coverage amounts to attention from a trade publication, but it’s also just a small part of a larger wave.
Anne Kim, a senior writer at Washington Monthly and a fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, recently wrote that there was a “growing buzz” around Edwards on the national scene. There seems to be some truth to that. The governor recently spoke at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His 2015 campaign is already being used as a case study for other elections, including the U.S. Senate race in Alabama. Plus his name has been a nearly constant fixture in national reports, due to hurricanes, flooding issues and the different roles governors have been playing on national issues, like health care. The attention he has been receiving from Democrats outside of the state, though, is almost exclusively related to his personal story. No, not that story. It’s his tale of two parties ceding the center and his talking points about about a Democratic governor navigating a GOP state. Based on accounts from people who have witnessed some of Edwards’ out-of-state speeches, he’s not regurgitating the West Point “Honor Code” narrative that was unleashed on Louisiana in 2015. Instead, Edwards openly refers to himself as a “trial lawyer” before these audiences and talks about “progressive” policies, using terms that would make conservatives back home shudder. The phrasing likewise surfaced two months ago when POLITICO ran with this headline and kicker: “Can This Governor Teach Democrats How to Win in the South? John Bel Edwards might be pro-life and pro-gun, but he’s also notched some real progressive wins.”
Around the same time, The Economist published a story about the drive to push the Democratic Party to the center, and which political players could make it happen. Louisiana’s governor was singled out for that piece: “Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana bluntly told colleagues that if the national Democratic Party had not tolerated his views on abortion (anti) and gun rights (pro), he would not have won his conservative state and ‘would not be here today.’” Whatever you do, don’t call Edwards a potential presidential candidate. His boosters, quickly and decidedly, will shoot the suggestion down — just in case anyone wants to link his rising political stock nationally with former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s failed presidential ambitions. Edwards, for his part, isn’t courting the limelight in a similar fashion. Still, the suggestion is out there. Scott McKay, the publisher of The Hayride, floated the issue while questioning the media coverage of Edwards’ recent visit to Puerto Rico. “Does it add up to Edwards trying to run for president as a Democrat in 2020?” McKay asked. The governor is probably more worried about 2019. That’s when he’ll be the incumbent in what will likely be the most expensive election for governor in Louisiana history. (Just like 2015.) National Democrats want to make sure they protect their seat — and veto authority — before the redistricting process begins. Conservative super PACs, meanwhile, are already spending money to soften up Edwards.
Once you mix in a predictably large GOP field, and the possibility that Louisiana could host the lone competitive governor’s election in the nation, you start to understand why consultants are already seeing dollar signs. So get ready for another barnburner of a gubernatorial election in 2019. In many ways, it’s a contest that has already started.