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Edwards and Rispone to Clash in Only Debate of Louisiana Gov. Race Runoff

Louisiana Public Broadcasting

Five weeks separate the gubernatorial primary and runoff in the race for Louisiana governor and this week marks the halfway point. Primary voters whittled down the field to two candidates—Republican businessman Eddie Rispone and the incumbent, Democrat John Bel Edwards.

The top-three candidates met in televised debates three times ahead of the primary and a few more times in candidate forums around the state. But that hasn't been the case in the runoff.

On Wednesday, Edwards and Rispone will meet face-to-face in the first, and likely only, debate before voters head to the polls November 16th.

Pearson Cross, political science professor and the Associate Dean of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette College of Liberal Arts, previews the showdown.

Q: In the last two weeks, Gov. Edwards appeared all by himself in two candidate forums intended to put both men on the same stage.

“We had this event in both the primary and in the runoff,” Edwards said at the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday. “The difference was all the candidates at that time showed up. So, I’ll start by asking, ‘Where’s Eddie?’”

So, let's start there. Where has Eddie Rispone been?

Well, Eddie respondents have been doing what he thinks he needs to do to win. That's going to private meetings with a Republican donors, to going to special events, to meeting with Vice President Pence, to getting his message out. Up to this point, his message has been very much, ‘I'm not a regular politician, I'm a businessman,’ and he's acting that way.

Q: Why might he want to avoid a debate with Gov. Edwards?

He wants to keep his options open. If you're in a debate and you're ask about something, what would you do with regard to education or healthcare, things like that, it gets harder and harder just to avoid being very specific. But if you get very specific, then people can pick your plans apart. He's doing a pretty good job of staying away from any kind of specific questions and just kind of building on general themes in his campaign.

Q: Keeping that in mind, what are some things Edwards might want to emphasize on the debate stage?

Well, on the debate stage, I think Edwards would emphasize that he expanded healthcare for 450,000 Louisianans. I think he would emphasize that there's a surplus in the economy. I think he would emphasize that he gave teachers $1,000 pay raise. He's got a list of accomplishments that he trots out every time he speaks.

Q: What might we see from Rispone?

Well from Rispone I think we'll see the opposite. He'll be saying, we're being taxed too much. The $500 million surplus that we see is just evidence that we're being taxed too much. The Industrial Tax Exemption Program is a bone of contention. He thinks it's too high. He thinks the franchise tax should be repealed. He thinks that Edwards has set up a hostile climate for business investment. And, and I think that's what we'll see him emphasize.

Q: Is this debate likely to have a big impact on voters or is Rispone’s plan to minimize its influence on the race and focus on political ads going to win the day?

For those voters who watched the debate, it could have a big impact. On the other hand, many voters have already made up their minds or they still won't pay attention. So, it depends on how widely it's watched. Debates overall, don't change a ton of minds unless there's really an enormous mistake and that's one of the reasons why Rispone would want to limit participation in debates because he's less likely to make a mistake that way.

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