Democrat John Bel Edwards and Republican David Vitter talked over each other, called each other liars and had to be repeatedly interrupted by moderators Monday in the final debate before Saturday’s runoff.
The event, which was held before a crowd of about 400 people at The Dunham School in Baton Rouge, was televised statewide by WVLA-TV, though television viewers also likely struggled with the frequent noisy disruptions from rowdy partisans who seemed to dominate the live audience. Despite repeated requests from moderators, supporters from both sides broke out in frequent applause or heckled the candidates on stage.
Vitter, who has lagged in recent polls, last week called for more debates, but Edwards has declined citing scheduling conflicts. If Monday night’s affair was any indicator, the race between the two has gotten so bitter that additional debates may not provide much new insight into the candidates, aside from their willingness to go after each other.
Edwards, a state representative for the past eight years, was once considered a long-shot in ruby-red Louisiana, but after a bitter primary battle with Republicans Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, U.S. Sen. Vitter has struggled to reunite the state’s GOP base.
“David Vitter is desperate. He will lie and distort,” Edwards said early in the debate, responding to Vitter’s characterization of his position on Syrian refugees. Vitter, sitting across a table from Edwards shaking his head.
Vitter, later in the debate, called Edwards “John Bel Come Lately.”
As the governor’s race enters its final days, the candidates challenged each others’ positions on issues like abortion and taxes, which on the books appear similar.
Both say they are anti-abortion. Neither has advocated for tax increases, but say they would work to scale back some tax credits and remove some structural dedications from the state budget to address the state’s fiscal crisis.
“It is going to be a tough task,” Edwards said. “That’s why we have to elect a governor who has a proven record of dealing with both parties.”
Both committed to holding town hall meetings before the state holds a special session to address budget issues in February.
“I need the support of the public to push these tough reforms through the Legislature,” Vitter said.
The candidates laid out their differences on organized labor — Edwards says that should be the choice of workers. Vitter says unions have been harmful — and minimum wage — Edwards is for one, Vitter is against it — as well as other issues.
But there were no major policy revelations in the debate, which glided from issue to issue with few details, despite repeated follow-ups from the moderators.
At several points, Vitter and Edwards ignored the moderators to continue their verbal sparring and disagreements.
Vitter was again confronted about his 2007 prostitution scandal, which drew loud boos and groans from his supporters in the crowd. Vitter’s phone number was connected to the D.C. Madame in phone records between 1999-2001. The scandal was revealed in 2007, prompting Vitter to admit to a “very serious sin.” The connection is the focus of a blistering negative ad released by Edwards campaign recently.
“I’ve spoken about this directly with the people of Louisiana for some time,” Vitter said. “Life isn’t about your falls; it’s about how you get up.”
Attempts to get specific answers from Vitter were shouted down by his supporters who screamed for the moderators to “move on.”
Edwards responded that Vitter still had not directly addressed whether he had committed a crime.
“We’re obligated as Christians to forgive, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget,” he said.
Edwards was confronted about donations he has received from attorneys and unions.
“My loyalties will always be to the people of Louisiana,” he said.
Vitter retorted that Edwards’ campaign is a “three-legged stool” propped up by unions, teachers unions and lawyers.