As the clock winds down on a monthslong battle for the Governor’s Mansion, the campaigns’ focus has shifted from budgets and education policies to a referendum on an issue that few would have predicted: Syrian refugees.
Both Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards are backing calls for a moratorium on Syrian refugees in Louisiana in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last week.
Vitter stepped up his criticism of the refugee program on Tuesday by introducing legislation in Washington that aims to halt the relocation of refugees from Syria until certain safeguard measures are verified.
Whether he’ll be able to muster a vote on his bill before Saturday’s gubernatorial runoff remains to be seen, but as election day nears, it’s clear Vitter is hoping the issue resonates with Louisiana voters.
“President Obama’s plan to bring 10,000 Syrians to the U.S. is outrageous and irresponsible,” he wrote in a campaign email Tuesday. “Who will stand up and fight for the people of Louisiana when it matters the most? The answer is clear.”
Vitter has been trailing rival Edwards in all polls made public since the Oct. 24 primary.
According to state authorities, 14 Syrian refugees were resettled in Louisiana, but one has since left the state for Washington.
Over the next two days, Vitter has scheduled four news conferences specifically to discuss efforts to stop Syrian refugees from coming here.
Since Friday’s attacks in Paris, Vitter’s campaign and political action committees backing him in the governor’s race have sent a barrage of messages via email highlighting the refugee issue. His campaign has deployed robocalls on the topic, and one of the latest pro-Vitter political ads focuses on it.
Edwards’ campaign responded with a political ad of its own, saying he, too, opposes the continued relocation of refugees here until more information is known.
The issue was the first discussed during a Monday night debate between Edwards and Vitter. The two clashed over where they stand, with Vitter accusing Edwards of wanting to work with President Barack Obama to bring more Syrian refugees to Louisiana. Edwards fired back, accusing Vitter of misrepresenting his position and that he was open to “conversations” on the program.
“I don’t want to have a conversation,” Vitter shot back. “I want it to stop.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal has issued an executive order that attempts to keep Syrian refugees out of Louisiana until more information is given to the state.
Vitter’s Senate bill, dubbed the “Syrian Refugee Verification and Safety Act” would suspend the admissions of refugees from Syria for at least 300 days while a review is conducted of the process by which they are screened and admitted.
It also would require the U.S. secretary of state to provide information about whether any refugees who have been admitted through the program are thought to have engaged in terrorist conduct.
“We need to make sure that every person stepping onto American soil is exactly who he says he is, and right now, we don’t have the necessary verification safeguards in place to make that determination, not by a long shot. My legislation will help protect Americans here at home,” Vitter said in a news release.
Edwards’ campaign called Vitter’s legislation a “last-ditch effort to save his political life” and likened it to former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s effort to push Keystone pipeline legislation through the Senate in the final days of her failed re-election bid.
Vitter, at the time, called Landrieu’s effort a “political stunt” because of the timing.
In the fall of 2013, Vitter opposed military action in Syria. In a statement at the time, he said events in Syria “do not pose a direct threat to the United States or our allies.” He also missed hearings on Syria, one for a gubernatorial debate on Oct. 1.
On the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, Vitter defended his call for a review of the refugee policy, saying he believes safeguards are needed to prevent Islamic State terrorists from infiltrating the program.
“It’s very clear to me that we do not have those safeguards now,” he said. “We need to put a stop to this until proper, full, aggressive safeguards are in place.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat who is the party’s ranking member on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, got up to speak after Vitter on an issue related to climate change but first addressed Vitter’s legislation and the plight of refugees seeking solace from religious persecution.
“Refugees, when they seek to come to this country, they don’t get to come like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. He urged his colleagues to take “deep breaths” before responding.