SENATE FORUM

Pictured from left to right are U.S. Senatorial candidates, John Fleming, John Neely Kennedy, Caroline Fayard, Foster Campbell and Charles Boustany Jr. during a forum at the campus of Louisiana Tech University on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016.

The top five candidates for the U.S. Senate clashed Tuesday night over the Affordable Care Act, President Obama and how to fight for Louisiana in Washington, during the first televised debate in the race to replace outgoing Sen. David Vitter.

After a mostly sedate campaign that has failed to galvanize voters, the five candidates sought to draw distinctions with the others, three weeks before Election Day.

U.S. Rep. John Fleming, who represents northwest Louisiana, repeatedly painted himself as the one true conservative, dismissing the other two Republican candidates – U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany and state Treasurer John Kennedy – as wannabees.

Boustany, who represents southwest Louisiana and most coastal parishes, presented himself as a thoughtful conservative who achieves results.

The 90-minute debate from Louisiana Tech also featured two Democratic candidates – New Orleans attorney Caroline Fayard and Foster Campbell, a member of the Public Service Commission from Bossier Parish.

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Campbell said he is proud to call himself a politician because he has the mindset to work with others to get things done. He repeatedly said he has challenged powerful business interests on behalf of ordinary citizens.

Fayard waited until her closing statement to depict a sharp contrast between herself and Campbell and the other three elected officials.

She noted that she was “the only one not being paid by you to be here” and added, “They talk a lot about themselves. They don’t talk about you ... I’m not one of the good old boys.”

Kennedy said he has made a career out of standing up to other politicians in Baton Rouge and Washington. At one point, he ridiculed congressional spending programs for Swedish massage and pets, saying he represented the change needed in the nation’s Capital.

Kennedy and Campbell both said they wanted voters to know that they had stood up to the spending plans of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who left behind a large budget deficit when he stepped down in January.

Campbell noted that he is the only one of the five candidates who believes that humans are responsible for climate change and who supports lawsuits filed against the oil and gas industry demanding that they pay to restore the loss of coastal land caused by their drilling and exploration activities.

The three Republicans all panned the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, while the two Democrats said it has provided needed care to the poor.

At one point, Campbell said Kennedy ought to apologize for saying during campaign events that he would rather drink weed killer than support Obamacare. Campbell said it was an inappropriate joke about suicide.

“Mental health is not a joking matter,” agreed Boustany.

Kennedy didn’t back down when asked if he wanted to respond.

“I’d rather drink weed killer than answer that,” he said, prompting an audible groan from the audience at the Howard Performing Arts Center.

At another point, Fleming reminded viewers that Kennedy endorsed then-Sen. John Kerry for president in 2004 when Kennedy was a Democrat running for the Senate.

“When you get kicked in the rear, it usually means you’re out front,” shot back Kennedy.

Fleming, Boustany and Kennedy all said they would oppose Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Boustany’s statement Tuesday night represented a change from two weeks ago when he told The Advocate that he didn’t know enough about Garland to take a position.

Campbell and Fayard said the Senate should hold hearings on Garland but said they needed to know more before saying whether they would confirm him.

All three Republicans said they would vote for Donald Trump, the party’s nominee, while Fayard said she would vote for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.

“The Democratic nominee,” is all Campbell would say, unwilling to say her name publicly, apparently to forestall a Republican attack ad in the runoff election that would tie him to Clinton.

Tuesday night’s debate, which took place in Ruston, aired statewide on Louisiana Public Broadcasting three weeks before the Nov. 8 primary, when voters in Louisiana will not only choose their presidential candidate but which two Senate candidates advance to the runoff election.

Under Louisiana’s jungle primary, both candidates who advance could be Republicans or Democrats, but the likeliest scenario will pit a Republican versus a Democrat. Analysts expect a Republican ultimately to prevail in a state where Gov. John Bel Edwards is the only Democrat elected statewide.

Polls have not established a clear frontrunner, giving each of the five candidates at Tuesday night’s debate reason to argue that he and or she will make the runoff.

In all, 24 candidates will be on the Nov. 8 ballot in the Senate race. Early voting begins Tuesday, Oct. 25.

Tuesday night’s debate required candidates to register at least 5 percent in an independent poll and to have raised $1 million in campaign funds.

Two prominent Republicans who also didn’t make the cut were white supremacist David Duke, who is the best known candidate but is widely disliked, and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness, a favorite of tea party Republicans.

The absence of Duke and Maness benefited Fleming because the three men – all fervent supporters of Trump – are pitching themselves to the same bloc of voters.

Troy Hebert, who spent 15 years in the state Legislature and is running as a political independent, sued to be included but lost the case.

Hebert injected a dose of Louisiana humor into the race Tuesday by posting a 25-minute video online where he lampoons the event and the $1 million rule by taking turns dressing up as the five candidates and the two moderators, including LPB’s president and chief executive officer, Beth Courtney.


Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.