Sen. John Kennedy Staying Out of Louisiana Governor's Race

Dec 3, 2018

After months of speculation, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy announced Monday he won't run against Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019, a decision that removes a formidable opponent from the Louisiana governor's race and leaves Republicans scrambling without a well-known contender. The announcement, made in a press release, came as a shock.

The Republican senator, a political figure for three decades, has long eyed the governor's seat, and suggestions he would challenge Edwards began nearly as soon as he was elected to the U.S. Senate two years ago.

His popularity with voters and prodigious fundraising skills would have made him a strong challenger as Republicans try to unseat the Deep South's only Democratic governor.

But Kennedy, 67, has quickly raised his profile in Washington, giving him more of a footing in Congress than would have been expected. Also, Edwards maintains high approval ratings in the state, so the race would have been a tough competition. A recent poll showed both Edwards and Kennedy with approval ratings around 60 percent.

In his statement, Kennedy said he decided against entering the race because he thinks he can best serve Louisiana in Washington.

"I love being in the United States Senate. I will not be a candidate for governor in 2019," Kennedy said. "I will, however, continue to work hard every day in D.C. and Louisiana for jobs, economic growth, cheaper health insurance, a stronger military and an end to government waste."

Edwards panned the lengthy is-he-in-or-out drama. "For Sen. Kennedy, this was never about the people of Louisiana. This was about focusing the spotlight on himself," the governor said in a statement.

"Now that this is behind us, my hope is that he will make it a priority to work together with me and the entire congressional delegation to get things done for the hard working families of this state." Kennedy's decision leaves wealthy Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone as the lone Republican challenging Edwards' bid for a second term. He's said he's willing to put at least $5 million of his own money into the contest.

Other GOP officials considering the race include U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, who's said he's leaning toward running. Few people seemed to know in advance of Kennedy's plan to skip the race.

Though he's been in elected or appointed political office most of the time since taking a job in 1988 as Gov. Buddy Roemer's special counsel, Kennedy has long operated as a political loner.

He spent many of his 17 years as Louisiana state treasurer quarreling with governors and other officials over financial policies, whether they were in his party or not, and proudly building his reputation as an outsider — a reputation that bolstered his approval ratings with voters.

He ran for the U.S. Senate three times before winning the seat, first as a liberal Democrat in 2004 and then as a conservative Republican in 2008 and in his 2016 victory to fill the seat vacated by Republican David Vitter.

The speculation that Kennedy would be vying for governor without completing his first term for a job he repeatedly sought raised complaints he was office-hopping. Instead, Kennedy said he would stay put in Washington, where he's managed to attract national attention quickly.

During his brief tenure in the U.S. Senate, Kennedy has become a favorite interview for news outlets, because of his outspoken, folksy responses and his quickness with a quotable sound bite.

He's mostly provided a safe Senate vote for Republicans, and he's been a strong supporter of President Donald Trump. He's raised his profile with his position on the Judiciary Committee, where he eviscerated one of Trump's judicial nominees, but praised the credentials of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after sexual assault allegations were raised during Kavanaugh's nomination hearings.

Though he projects the image of a Southern country lawyer, Kennedy has an imposing academic pedigree, with an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University, a law degree from the University of Virginia and a bachelor of civil law degree from Oxford University, where he graduated with first-class honors. As state treasurer across five terms, Kennedy drew new notice to the job as the state's banker, getting into high-profile clashes with Republican and Democratic governors.

He's repeatedly clashed with Edwards over his tax packages, spending plans and criminal sentencing law changes. And despite his move to a Washington-based position, Kennedy has continued to embroil himself in issues back home, which raised expectations for a run against Edwards.