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Round One: Key Takeaways from the First Gubernatorial Debate of 2019

Aurianna Cordero
LSU Reveille

Gov. John Bel Edwards, Congressman Ralph Abraham and Baton Rouge business man Eddie Rispone faced off last week for the first of three televised debates ahead of the October 12th election.

In a race that's largely been contested through TV ads and press releases, the appearance marked the first time the three candidates met face-to-face to discuss the issues and take jabs at each other.

On this week’s Capitol Access, Pearson Cross, political science professor and Associate Dean of the University of Louisiana- Lafayette College of Liberal Arts analyzes the candidates’ performances.

Q: What were your big takeaways from the debate?

Well I think the big takeaways were a couple. One was that people are now attacking each other pretty freely. We’re seeing, for example, Abraham getting it from both sides-- from Edwards and Rispone.

But we’re also seeing some things that are kind of off the table. It looks like Medicaid expansion is not really in danger. It looks like criminal justice reform is not really in danger. 

There’s still a lot to go, but this race is tightening up, particularly on the Republican side.

Q: Tell me a bit about that. We’ve seen a big push from Eddie Rispone in the past week, including the first intra-party attack we’ve seen in this race. What effect has that had?

Well the effect in the short term seems to be that it has hurt Abraham’s numbers and helped Rispone’s numbers.

Although, there were a number of Republicans around the state who said “Look, Republicans don’t attack Republicans.” And so you had some people coming out, like Congressman Higgins, and getting behind Abraham because of the Rispone attacks.

But on the other hand, Rispone’s numbers are moving. When he first got into the race he was somewhere around 5 to 8 percent, and now by this latest poll, he’s leading Abraham. It appears the money he’s spending in the campaign is paying off.

Q: Right, Rispone has loaned his campaign $11 million of his own money so far. He seemed to struggle on the debate stage on Thursday, which raises an interesting question: Do debates like these still move the needle in a governor’s race or are things like ad buys becoming more important?

When it comes to changing voters’ minds, debates don’t have much to do unless there’s a big gaffe or unless there’s a real blow landed. Generally speaking, people who are inside the beltway, the pundits, look at these debates and think they’re a big deal. 

But frankly, it’s the people who change the poll numbers and who cast the votes. What matters more is the amount of money you have to respond to an opponent’s attack with ads.

Q: The next debate is at the University of Louisiana- Lafayette this Thursday. Should we expect anything different?

I think we should look for Abraham to maybe start to make some moves against Rispone. He’s going to be looking at this most recent poll and he’s going to want to draw some clear differences between himself and Rispone. Otherwise, he risks having Rispone surging by him and becoming the principal challenger to Gov. Edwards.

I think Edwards knows that Southwest Louisiana is not necessarily his home base, so I think you’re going to see him be very cautious. He’s going to be pointing to stability. He’s going to be talking about Medicaid expansion and healthcare and things like that. 

I think he’s going to try to to appear gubernatorial.

Early voting for the October 12 primary opens Saturday, September 28.

Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for A Better Louisiana will co-host the debate at the University of Louisiana- Lafayette. Live coverage begins at 7 p.m. on your local LPB station or this public radio station.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.