The debate between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican businessman Eddie Rispone next week in Baton Rouge will likely be the only opportunity voters will have to see the two men appear on the same stage before the runoff election that will decide Louisiana’s next governor.
Rispone’s campaign on Friday said the debate, which is slated for Wednesday evening at 7 p.m., is the only one in which he will participate. Both campaigns said they have no other joint appearances on the books.
The debate is being held by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and Council for a Better Louisiana and will take place at LPB’s Baton Rouge studios. There will not be a live audience.
The Nov. 16 runoff election will decide the fate of the Deep South’s only Democratic governor, and President Donald Trump is expected to return to Louisiana as part of an effort to nationalize the election and lift the Republican candidate to victory in a state Trump won by 20 points. While Edwards' approval rating is relatively strong, he faces a tough reelection against his GOP opponent, who benefits from an increasingly Republican-friendly electorate in Louisiana, as well as the backing of prominent party figures both in and out of state.
Rispone, who loaned his campaign $11.5 million in the primary election to ascend from relative obscurity to a coveted runoff spot against Edwards, has had relatively few public events, and has not offered a detailed plan of what he would do if elected. A longtime GOP donor and the co-founder of industrial contracting firm ISC Constructors, Rispone skipped a forum planned by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and other business groups earlier this week, leaving Edwards a lone stage to lay out his platform to business leaders.
Edwards will appear Monday at the Press Club of Baton Rouge, which typically holds forums for the gubernatorial candidates in primary and runoff elections, but Rispone is also not attending that event.
In 2015, when then-state Rep. Edwards faced former U.S. Sen. David Vitter in a runoff, the men squared off in two televised debates plus the Press Club of Baton Rouge forum.
During the primary, Rispone skipped forums held by the Public Affairs Research Council, Louisiana Sheriffs Association and Louisiana Municipal Association, leaving Edwards to tangle with U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a Republican who came in third with 24% of the vote. Edwards led all candidates with 47% of the vote in the primary, short of the 50% plus one he needed to win the election outright on Oct. 12. Rispone advanced with 27% of the vote.
Edwards’ campaign spokesman Eric Holl said Edwards wanted to do another runoff debate being planned by Gray Television, which hosted a debate during the primary election.
Invitations for that debate were set to go out Friday, said WAFB news director Robb Hays. Hays said he has not received final word from the campaigns on whether they will attend. If Rispone's campaign changes its mind, the debate would take place in the days leading up to election day, which is a Saturday in two weeks.
A representative for Nexstar Media Group, which held a debate in the primary, declined to comment on whether it had a debate planned for the runoff.
Rispone has come under fire from Edwards’ allies for holding few public events and not outlining his platform in detail. The Democratic Governors Association called him “evasive” and slammed him for being “absent” from the campaign trail on Thursday.
Ruth Wisher, a Rispone spokeswoman, said the candidate is “regularly out meeting with folks and meeting with community leaders.”
Most of those events are held behind closed doors. He was slated to hold a criminal justice roundtable earlier this week in Shreveport but the campaign postponed it. Aside from that, he attended a GOP rally last weekend in Kenner and a meet-and-greet in Morgan City and is scheduled to speak before a Republican women group in Lake Charles Saturday.
Vice President Mike Pence is slated to visit Baton Rouge Monday for a private fundraiser to help Rispone.