The first televised debate in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race draws clear distinctions between Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, one of her Republican opponents, on a wide spectrum of issues.
The philosophical divide between the candidates was on display from the first moments of the debate.
In her opening statement, Landrieu stressed the importance of her three terms in the Senate in giving her the ability to get projects, funding and legislation of concern to Louisianians approved by a divided and largely deadlocked Congress. That influence, and the benefits it brings to specific industries and interests in the state, has been a key part of Landrieu’s campaign.
“It’s about leadership, clout, about being able to deliver for the state of Louisiana,” Landrieu said. “Despite the gridlock, my work for the state of Louisiana has not stopped.”
Maness, by contrast, decried “career politicians” and advanced a philosophy focused on eliminating federal regulations, restrictions and mandates, all part of a campaign that has sought to portray him as the true conservative choice in a race where he trails the Republican front-runner.
“America is the last best hope on Earth, but our future is in danger because of poor leadership from carer politicians,” Maness said.
The debate, held at the Georges Auditorium at Dillard University, will be broadcast at 6 p.m. Friday on WDSU-TV and streamed at the same time on wdsu.com.
Landrieu, seeking re-election, is facing off against Maness and U.S. Rep Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, who leads the polls among conservatives going into the Nov. 4 open primary.
Cassidy was invited but “despite several pleas” declined to attend the debate, said WDSU anchor Scott Walker, the moderator. Both Landrieu and Maness have criticized Cassidy — who has said he will appear at only two televised debates — for skipping others that have been scheduled.
The debate itself was perhaps more raucous than its sponsors intended. Maness was aggressive in taking advantage of 30-second rebuttals to Landrieu’s remarks and frequently had to be stopped because he ran over the allotted time. And when contentious issues, such as the Affordable Care Act, arose, an audience divided between supporters of the two candidates could be heard challenging or affirming the candidates’ positions.
Landrieu — who has sometimes been criticized by liberals for being too soft-spoken about their concerns — provided a full-throated defense of liberal issues such as raising the minimum wage and “Obamacare.” Maness came off as a polished campaigner despite his lack of political experience.
On pay, Landrieu said it is important to pass federal legislation guaranteeing equal pay for women and to increase the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour, saying that with inflation, it should now be $10.90 an hour.
Such an issue cannot be left up to the states, she said, pointing to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to refuse a Medicaid expansion that is part of the Affordable Care Act, and connecting Cassidy and Jindal. “I just don’t trust Gov. Jindal or Cassidy to make those decisions about people who work hard and deserve a fair wage,” she said.
Maness said he opposes raising the minimum wage nationwide, arguing it would kill jobs, but said he would support allowing states to decide the issue for themselves.
The candidate’s stances on “Obamacare” provided one of the clearest distinctions between the two.
While arguing the law is “not perfect,” Landrieu said it is “working in many important ways” and gives flexibility to people by allowing them to gain health insurance if they decide to leave their jobs, to not have to fear bankruptcy from medical bills and, in the case of young people just graduating from college, to remain on their parents’ insurance plans while they establish themselves. She also took another shot at Jindal, saying that “in states where governors, not ours, are making this work … the costs are coming down.”
Maness argued the law has put the squeeze on small businesses because of its requirements. He called it “an abomination.” He called for allowing more choice in insurance, arguing that people should be able to buy only the type of insurance they need, that state governments should oversee insurance regulations and that insurance programs should not be tied to employment.
“My priority is not just to kill it but to pull it out by the roots because it is a job-killer,” he said.
Maness said he supported Landrieu’s and Cassidy’s efforts to alter a federal law, known as the Biggert-Waters Act, which would have resulted in huge increases in flood insurance premiums for tens of thousands of families in Louisiana. That’s a change from earlier this year, when he opposed such an effort.
Maness said he didn’t believe the federal government should continue to “kick the can down the road” by providing flood insurance, an apparent reference to concerns about the solvency of the program, and he suggested the private sector be brought into the equation.
But Landrieu, noting the national flood insurance program was started after Hurricane Betsy hit the state, argued that only the federal government can provide coverage for coastal communities that are threatened by flooding but are crucial to the nation’s economy. She noted that the residents relying on the program were doing so not for vacation homes but for their primary residences.
The two also differed strongly on two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases.
Maness argued in favor of the so-called Hobby Lobby decision, a ruling that said some types of corporations do not have to provide insurance for some types of birth control required by “Obamacare” if their owners have religious objections. However, he mischaracterized the decision, arguing that it was necessary to prevent the federal government from paying for such services, though that was not at issue in the case.
Landrieu said she opposed that decision, arguing that while it made sense for churches and other specifically religious institutions to have exemptions due to their religious beliefs, there had to be a limit to such policies to ensure access to health care.
Maness also came out in favor of the Citizens United decision, which loosened restrictions on corporate political spending on free speech grounds. He said his campaign would not be possible without that decision.
Landrieu shot back that corporate spending was a problem in politics and that the Maness campaign, largely funded with small donations from private individuals, gained no benefit from the case. She argued the true beneficiary has been Cassidy, who has benefited from spending by corporate political action committees.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed comments Rob Maness made about Obamacare to Bill Cassidy.