BATON ROUGE, La. (NEXSTAR) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards faced his two Republican challengers in their first head-to-head debate Thursday night, and the Democratic incumbent spent much of his time fending off reproach of his performance in office.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham tangled with Edwards most directly, with the men often talking over each other in disagreements as Abraham accused the Democratic incumbent of repeatedly turning to “taxes, taxes, taxes” from the state’s already strapped citizens. At one point, Edwards told Abraham: “You are just 100% false.”
Rispone, running in third place in the polls, was sometimes sidelined by the back-and-forth disputes, at one point asking about a question: “Do I get to answer that one?” He dismissed the exchanges as the arguments of “two career politicians,” continuing to position himself as the outsider even as he and Abraham offer similar negative assessments of Edwards’ performance in office.
While Abraham and Rispone panned the growth of state spending levels and Edwards’ support of sales taxes to balance the budget, Edwards said he worked with lawmakers of both parties to stabilize the state’s finances and make new investments in public colleges and the first statewide K-12 public school teacher pay raises in a decade.
“I don’t agree that we should cut taxes until we know that we won’t go back into a structural budget deficit,” Edwards said, as his two opponents pledged to decrease taxes.
Abraham said Edwards once described sales tax increases as a threat to the state’s economy. The congressman told Edwards: “Congratulations, governor, you’ve killed it.”
Edwards replied with economic statistics that he said document a thriving Louisiana economy. Neither Abraham nor Rispone detailed where they would cut state spending to balance a budget with less tax revenue.
Rispone said he would cut taxes and that he believes Louisiana has a spending problem. He says he would look at budgets from a business standpoint.
Each candidate was also asked whether they would support an increase in the gas tax in order to help eliminate the state’s multi-billion dollar backlog in infrastructure needs.
Edwards said he would.
“We need a business person to prioritize infrastructure,” Rispone said, explaining why he would not. “We’ve got to spend that money where we promised.”
The gas tax has remained the same for nearly three decades. Louisiana is ranked 48 out of 50 in the nation for infrastructure by US News and World Report, and has received a D+ ranking from the American society of Civil Engineers in 2017.
There was agreement among the candidates on some issues, however. All backed legislation signed by Edwards earlier this year that bans abortion as early as six weeks of pregnancy without exceptions for victims of rape or incest.
All three candidates raised their hands when asked by LSU Student Sarah Procopio whether they would support funding the TOPS program at its current levels.
The Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS) is a program of state scholarships for Louisiana residents who attend Louisiana public colleges or universities.
All three also said they support a state law requiring background checks for all gun sales, and none supported limitations on semiautomatic weapons.
Louisiana has some of the least restrictive gun laws in the nation. The state does not require a background check prior to the sale or transfer of a firearm between unlicensed parties.
An exclusive Nexstar poll found that, when asked specifically about access to semi-automatic rifles, more than half (58%) of the likely voters surveyed said they either supported limitations on the 2nd Amendment or called for these rifles to be outlawed. Only 5% oppose the constitutional right to keep and bear arms and support limitations on gun ownership.
Edwards said the poll’s findings don’t change his stance on the subject.
Hosted by Nexstar Media before a live audience at the LSU Student Union Theater in collaboration with the LSU Manship School of Communication, the hour-long debate also included questions about whether the candidates would consider banning e-cigarettes.
Rispone said e-cigarettes should be treated like cigarettes in general, but indicated he’s not quite prepared to support a ban on them.
Abraham said he doesn’t recommend vaping but called it a personal choice, adding public policy should follow the data on the effects of e-cigarettes.
Edwards said he would sit down with health officials and figure out what the facts are surrounding the health threat, but noted the growing number of people, particularly young people, who have developed serious, irreversible lung damage. He also added that the state would be addressing possible e-cigarette regulation in the next legislative session.
Thursday’s debate was aired statewide, filmed before an audience of hundreds of people on Louisiana State University’s campus, the first of four scheduled debates to feature all three main contenders. The election is Oct. 12, with early voting beginning Sept. 28.
Edwards is hoping to win outright in next month’s open primary by receiving more than 50% of the votes. While all polls in the race have him in the lead, they haven’t shown him reaching that benchmark.
Abraham, a third-term congressman from northeast Louisiana, is the leading Republican challenger, even though Rispone has spent five times as much on his campaign as Abraham. Rispone, owner of an industrial contracting company from Baton Rouge, is largely self-financing his gubernatorial effort. He has poured more than $11 million of his own money into his campaign account.
Rispone, owner of an industrial contracting company from Baton Rouge, is largely self-financing his gubernatorial effort. He has poured more than $11 million of his own money into his campaign account, using several million of it so far. Though he is a longtime donor to conservative candidates and causes, Rispone is making his first bid for elected office.
In individual questions from the moderators, Abraham defended his repeated absences from Congress, saying his constituents understand how important the governor’s race is. But he also acknowledged he’d be missing more votes.
Edwards defended his decision to hire Johnny Anderson as a top aide, even after sexual misconduct allegations were lodged against Anderson in a previous government position. Anderson left his post in November 2017 amid claims he sexually harassed a woman in the governor’s office, allegations resolved with a taxpayer-financed settlement. The governor said Anderson was cleared of the prior allegations before he was hired and “his service to the state of Louisiana was terminated” quickly when the new allegations were lodged.
Rispone launched attack ads not only against Edwards but against Abraham as well, an intraparty hit that has drawn backlash from some Republicans. But Abraham largely ignored Rispone on stage. Rispone took only one direct dig at Abraham, pointing out that the congressman suggested in 2016 that Donald Trump should consider stepping aside from the GOP presidential nomination. Rispone described himself as the only true loyalist to President Trump.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.