GOP forum

U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, left, and Eddie Rispone, of Baton Rouge, both Republican candidates for governor at a forum Thursday night, Sept. 5, 2019.

The two major Republican candidates for governor tried to draw distinctions with one another Thursday before a room full of mainly Republican voters, as they seek to outmaneuver each other to advance into a runoff election with Gov. John Bel Edwards this fall.

Congressman Ralph Abraham, of north Louisiana, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, mostly agreed on a range of policy questions, from immigration to the economy. They also both chastised the incumbent Democrat, accusing him of tanking the economy. Both enthusiastically embraced President Donald Trump.

But as early voting for the Oct. 12 primary approaches, both candidates also tried to stand out. Rispone cast himself as an outsider, comparing himself to Trump and insisting his business skills uniquely positions him to make sweeping changes to the way state government operates.

“He wants to keep kicking the can down the road,” Rispone said of his Republican opponent. “I want to go in there and make a sea change. We have one opportunity to make a sea change.”

Abraham conceded the two agreed on most of the policy issues, but he said he’s the only candidate who has always opposed common core educational standards, and is also the only candidate endorsed by the National Rifle Association, citing a previous endorsement. Rispone's campaign said Rispone is a lifetime "endowment" NRA member, and pointed out the NRA hasn't endorsed in the governor's race. 

The two also drew distinctions on a constitutional convention, with Rispone characterizing Abraham’s skepticism on the idea as proof he is not willing to make structural changes. Abraham, meanwhile, suggested Rispone’s comments about putting money toward a delegate-selection process is a “separation of powers” issue.

“There are differences we’ll separate ourselves with,” Abraham said. “And certainly for me it’s the separation of powers. You can’t be king.”

Abraham also highlighted the distinction between the two on the death penalty, which Abraham said he supports and would like to see expanded. Rispone, citing his catholic faith, said he does not believe the death penalty should be used. 

The event, held by a greater Baton Rouge Republican women organization, represented the first significant clash between the two GOP contenders, who have thus far been hesitant to attack one another. Party leaders in Louisiana have warned the candidates not to negatively campaign against each other, pointing to a bruising primary battle in 2015 that left David Vitter in a weakened position in his runoff with Edwards, who is now the only Democratic governor of a Deep South state.

While Abraham has led Rispone in the polls so far, Rispone has invested $10 million of his own money into his campaign, and his spending on television advertising in recent weeks has boosted his standing in the race.

Rispone, who co-founded the industrial construction firm ISC Constructors, played up his resource advantage before the room full of Republicans, at the state archives building where early voting is held in Baton Rouge.

A longtime political donor to GOP causes, Rispone questioned why Louisiana has long lagged behind in economic opportunity, given the state’s resources. He told voters they need to “do something different” by electing a businessman, making direct comparisons to Trump.

“We have in our president someone who’s an outsider, someone who’s a serious business person would not be running if we had that person in this race,” Rispone said. “And I’m the person to do that.”

Abraham delivered a host of mainstream Republican policy positions, vowing to cut taxes, reform spending by holding back some of the state general fund each year, and find money in the budget to invest in things like infrastructure.

Edwards has accused his Republican challengers of campaigning on promises they can’t keep, citing his opponents’ vows to cut taxes while simultaneously raise spending on things like roads and schools. The governor is hoping to avoid the need for a runoff by winning more than 50% in the primary election.

Early voting begins in the Oct. 12 primary on Sept. 28. If no candidate wins more than 50%, the top two will advance to a runoff on Nov. 16.

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