Debate wasn't game-changer

LOUISIANA DEBATE — The first major debate in the Louisiana gubernatorial election wasn't a game-changer, but it had some heated exchanges.

Don’t expect last Thursday’s gubernatorial debate to change many voters’ minds. As for who won, each camp said his candidate aced it. Viewers got little in the way of new issues, and the two Republican candidates never gave us concrete explanations about how they would do a better job than Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has done.

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone offered no new surprises. We heard more about Louisiana losing too many jobs and taxes being too high.

Abraham, for example, said, “We do have the highest sales tax in the nation; that’s why we don’t have the jobs. We have lost jobs more than any other state in the nation. It’s due to taxes, taxes, taxes.”

Edwards should have reminded Abraham that the state sales tax was 4 percent when he took office; it was increased to 5 percent for only two years to balance the budget and is now only 4.45 percent. The 0.45 percent increase goes off the books in 2025.

High local sales taxes — some as high as 7 percent — are what give the state the third highest sales tax in the nation, and local voters approved them. Abraham can’t cut those taxes.

Abraham and Edwards had some testy exchanges, and Rispone continued to portray himself as an outsider.

“I’m just watching two politicians go after each other,” Rispone said.

Louisiana has lost jobs, but The Advocate said, “Economists mostly blame this on the slowdown in the state’s oil and gas industry.”

The most surprising part of the debate came when the moderators asked each candidate a tough question. Edwards was asked why he hired Johnny Anderson to his staff after Anderson had faced earlier sexual harassment allegations and it happened again.

Edwards said the earlier investigation found no wrongdoing and he thought Anderson was a “good, competent person.” What he should have said is he made a mistake, which public officials too often fail to do. Voters are quick to forgive public servants who own up to their mistakes.

Abraham was asked why he didn’t resign from Congress to run for governor since he has missed many votes during the campaign. He said his constituents are still well served. Like many other officials before him, Abraham can rest easy, knowing he will still have a public position if he loses. It definitely softens a loss.

Rispone was asked how he could consider himself an outsider when he has contributed more than $1 million to Republican politicians like former Gov. Bobby Jindal and former U.S. Sen. David Vitter. He said it’s because he has never run for political office before.

That’s true, but he knows what he has to do politically and that is why he earlier launched an attack against Abraham. Each Republican candidate hopes to get Edwards in a gubernatorial runoff, and Rispone has had a difficult time increasing his poll numbers.

Rispone’s campaign accused Abraham of lying in a campaign promise to donate his congressional salary to charity and missing votes while campaigning. Abraham countered that it was sad his “Republican opponent felt like his only option was to create an ad full of baseless personal attacks that he knows aren’t true.”

State Republican Party officials had hoped to avoid a repeat of the 2015 election when GOP candidates attacked one another and Edwards captured a surprise victory. The fact a Democrat won has stuck in their craw for nearly four years.

Poll numbers haven’t changed much, judging from a recent survey by Bernie R. Pinsonat Inc. for undisclosed private clients. The poll of 500 regular voters showed Edwards at 47 percent, Abraham at 24 percent and Rispone at 16 percent. Edwards needs one vote more than 50 percent to win in the primary, and the 14 percent of undecided voters could help him get him there.

The 54 percent approval rating Edwards got in the poll is lower than the 65 percent he got in a Pinsonat poll two years ago, but it’s still a plus. His negative rating was 42 percent.

Those who were surveyed gave Abraham a 41 percent positive rating and 41 percent negative rating. Rispone has a 37 percent positive rating and a 44 percent negative rating.

The Advocate said Pinsonat noted that Abraham is making inroads in Acadiana, but that both he and Rispone are underperforming in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the state’s largest metro areas. He said they have to capture a lot more voters to make the runoff.

The fact it took Republicans in the state House and Senate until 2018 to agree to a 0.45 percent state sales tax increase is helping Edwards in his campaign. New revenue made it possible for the legislative session earlier this year to restore major education funding after a decade of budget cuts. Surpluses have also helped the state pay down some of its debts.

Republican lawmakers helped achieve the positive results, and it is a sign that perhaps the two political parties can work together after all.

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