Rep. Ralph Abraham (R., La.) on Thursday announced that he will challenge Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D.) in the 2019 election, becoming the first elected official and second Republican to launch a campaign to unseat the only Democratic governor in the Deep South.
"I'm running for governor, and I intend to win," Abraham said, according to an official statement obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Abraham is the first person holding public office to enter the 2019 gubernatorial race against Edwards. The only other Republican to launch a campaign so far has been Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone.
Abraham, who has represented Louisiana's 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2015, has long been floated as a potential opponent for Edwards, a first-term Democrat. Abraham's entrance into the race comes on the heels of Republican senator John Kennedy's decision to pass on a run earlier this week.
Edwards was first elected in 2015 after a close and ugly campaign against then-Republican senator David Vitter. During that race, Edwards used a decade-old prostitution scandal to cast doubt on Vitter's character and moral fitness for office. In a now infamous political ad, Edwards' campaign lambasted Vitter for taking "a prostitute's call" minutes after skipping a vote honoring members of the nation's armed services.
Shortly after Abraham's announcement, Edwards' campaign released a statement signaling it would not take the upcoming campaign lightly.
"Representative Abraham said he couldn't launch a campaign for governor because it would distract him from important work [in Congress]," Edwards said. "Now, just a few days later, he's abandoning those responsibilities … For the sake of the people of Louisiana, it is my hope that he seriously considers whether or not he is capable of running for governor while fulfilling his duties in Washington, D.C."
The election will test the durability of the Deep South's lone Democratic governor in a state that went overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump in 2016.
Since taking office, Edwards has attempted to stake out political positions that are acceptable to both his heavily conservative state and his party, which is increasingly trending leftward. To that end, the governor has signed a 15-week abortion ban—to the dismay of national pro-choice groups—as well as legislation designating attacks on law enforcement as a "hate crime," while simultaneously expanding Medicaid and championing equal pay. Edwards has also led efforts to reform Louisiana's criminal justice system, which at one point was responsible for incarcerating more individuals per capita than any other state in the country.
The majority of Edwards tenure, however, has been marked by a political impasse over taxes and spending.
Louisiana's finances, which had taken a hit during the recession and faltered further because of decreases in energy production under the Obama administration, were in dire shape when Edwards took office in 2016. At the time, the state was facing a $2 billion budget shortfall, and Edwards' solution was the largest tax increase in Louisiana's history. Since the initial tax hike, Edwards has pushed for a bevy of other tax and fine increases to stabilize the state's budget. In June, Edwards convinced lawmakers to levy a new sales tax in order to provide a long-term revenue stream for the state budget.
The tax increases have not benefited Louisiana's economic outlook. In 2017, Louisiana posted the worst economic performance in the county and was one of just three states that witnessed its total economy shrink, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Likewise, the governor's administration has faced criticism for its non-economic policies.
Edwards' criminal justice reforms have drawn rebuke from top law enforcement figures, including Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, over statistics indicating that more than 12 percent of the prisoners released have been re-arrested for new crimes. Additionally, the governors' handling of Medicaid expansion has come under fire after the Louisiana auditor's office found the state may have misspent more than $85 million of taxpayer dollars on providing health coverage for individuals who did not qualify.
Despite lingering questions over his administration's success, Edwards' political triangulation seems to be working. A Morning Consult survey released in October found the governor had a 47-percent job approval rating among likely voters, compared to a 34-percent disapproval rating. The survey showed that nearly one out of five voters—19 percent—either did not know about Edwards or had no opinion on his tenure.
On Thursday, Abraham, a doctor and small business owner, said that the state's economic health would be central to his campaign message.
"Louisiana deserves better than what she currently has," Abraham told the USA Today Network. "I'm seeing businesses leaving and a governor who has been focused on raising taxes. I intend to do something about that."