Jeff Landry, the hard-line conservative leading the race for governor of Louisiana, surveyed the crowd packed into a small restaurant in Monroe, where his staff had covered the tables and a lone Halloween skeleton in his blue-and-yellow campaign merchandise.
“How would y’all like to finish this in October?” Mr. Landry, the state attorney general, said, teasing the possibility of his winning the state’s all-party primary outright this Saturday and closing the need for a runoff election next month.
He did not offer specifics about any issues. He did not mention any of his opponents of him, whom he has largely refused to debate. But his undisputed status as the race’s front-runner has suggested that for much of Louisiana, there has been little need for him to do any of that.
Mr. Landry has parlayed his aggressive litigation against the Biden administration and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a conservative Democrat who is term-limited, into a huge war chest, a slew of early Republican endorsements and what appears to be a comfortable lead in a crowded primary field.
Also on the ballot in Saturday’s “jungle primary” are two Democrats, four independents and seven other Republicans, none of whom have had the same visibility in recent years as Mr. Landry has had as a headline-making statewide office holder.
Should he win and cement Republican dominance of Louisiana government — Republicans already have a supermajority in the state House and Senate, and former President Donald J. Trump won about 60 percent of the state vote in both 2016 and 2020 — there is little question that Mr. Landry will drive the state further to the right on issues such as crime, the environment and LGBTQ rights.
The sea change in leadership would come at a moment when Louisiana is losing population while most of its Southern neighbors boom, with employers and families worried about growing brain drain, intensifying natural disasters and soaring insurance rates.
Mr. Landry’s dominance of the field has dampened the state’s typically raucous politics, leaving the remaining candidates to essentially jockey for second place in the primary on Saturday. If nobody wins more than 50 percent of the vote, which most election watchers expect, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff on Nov. 18.
Mr. Edwards, the only Democratic governor left in the Deep South, twice bucked the state’s conservative bent in elections and has retained support over his two terms. At times, he has managed to head off conservative social measures that have easily become law in nearby states run by Republicans, although he has supported stringent limits on abortion access and gun rights.
The race to replace him underscores how Louisiana’s particular brand of populist, personality-driven local politics has increasingly given way to a focus on nationalized issues that split along urban and rural lines. It has also left candidates struggling to energize voters disillusioned by bitter national divisions and weary of inflation, grueling heat and the lasting toll of the coronavirus pandemic.
Open to all candidates regardless of political leaning, the primary field includes Shawn Wilson, a Democrat and former state transportation secretary, and Hunter Lundy, an evangelical independent and former trial lawyer. It also includes three prominent Republicans: Sharon Hewitt, a state senator; Stephen Waguespack, a former aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal and business lobbyist, and John Schroder, the state treasurer.
“I’m in it for the people — I’m not in it for any political party,” said Mr. Lundy, speaking to a reporter as he drove to spend time eating lamb and boudin, a Cajun sausage, with farmers in Elton , west of New Orleans. It is unclear, however, whether enough voters will accept his deep Christian nationalism or his medical skepticism.
As the leading Democratic candidate, Mr. Wilson is favored to make the runoff, with multiple polls showing him in second place. Should he defy the polls, he would be the first Black candidate elected statewide in 150 years.
He has emphasized his long experience working with both parties, particularly in the transportation department.
“The leadership that I can provide can tamp down the extremism that only satisfies a very small portion of our state, either on the far, far left or the far, far right,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview. “That’s where the sweet spot of government is supposed to be — satisfying the masses.”
At an event hosted by the Louisiana AFL-CIO in Gonzales, west of New Orleans, concerns about Mr. Landry’s views resonated with several union workers gathered to hear Mr. Wilson speak.
“The next four years could be the rest of our lives,” Sean Clouatre, 48, told a Democrat and a local alderman in the Village of French Settlement. “Because of the policies they could pass and implement — it’s always harder to take them out than it is to implement them.”
Mr. Landry’s fellow Republicans in the race have struggled to carve out a distinct identity.
“We expected the race to be a little bit more on policy and issues,” Ms. Hewitt said. Ella’s stories of her time spent navigating the male-dominated oil and energy industries — including showering in a bathing suit on an oil rig because of a lack of doors — have resonated with some women on the campaign trail, she said.
Ms. Hewitt was among those who was irked early on by the state party’s unusually speedy endorsement of Mr. Landry. Their frustration was later exacerbated by his hefty fund-raising hauls and unwillingness to participate in most candidate forums.
“I’m trying to say you can be a conservative, but at the same time be wanting to bring people together,” said Mr. Waguespack, who has highlighted his time as the chief executive of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, rather than his years as a top aide to Governor Jindal, who quickly became unpopular as he made a failed run for president.
He added, “Bringing people together is a good thing, not a weakness.”
As attorney general, Mr. Landry has honed a confrontational approach, at one point suing a reporter for requesting public records related to a sexual harassment investigation into one of his aides. After a court hearing on Louisiana’s abortion law, one of the strictest in the nation, Mr. Landry said that critics could leave the state.
That combative spirit has earned him support from staunch Republicans, who cheered his willingness to challenge both Mr. Edwards and the Biden administration over coronavirus vaccine mandates. He also won support for his sweeping promises to address crime and prioritize parents’ rights in education, as well as for other positions that have motivated the Republican base.
“Jeff was actually fighting for us,” Kim Cutforth, a 64-year-old retiree, said of Mr. Landry’s opposition to pandemic mandates, as she waited for him to appear at a Baton Rouge restaurant on Thursday. “I loved him for it.”
The other Republican candidates, she added, should “just go — let Jeff be the governor.”
At his stop in Monroe, in the state’s north, he brushed off criticism that many of his stances could be too extreme for the state.
Noting that Louisiana’s population has suffered one of the biggest declines in the nation, he added, “we have a structural problem here in the state, and I believe on those issues I am the most qualified person.”