3 Governor Candidates

John Bel Edwards (left), Eddie Rispone (middle) and Ralph Abraham (right)

Louisiana voters will get their first view of the three major gubernatorial candidates in one setting when Gov. John Bel Edwards, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone face off Thursday night in a one-hour televised debate broadcast from LSU’s Student Union.

Airing live beginning at 7 p.m., it will mark the first of four joint appearances – including two more televised debates – by the three candidates over the next three weeks as the governor’s race hits its home stretch ahead of the Oct. 12 primary.

Thursday night’s debate is hosted by LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and Nexstar Media Group, and it comes after Rispone shook up the race Tuesday by launching separate attack ads against Abraham, a fellow Republican, and Edwards, the Democratic front-runner.

Trailing his opponents, Rispone is trying to pull enough conservative voters from Abraham to gain a spot in a runoff election against Edwards that would be held only if the governor fails to secure more than 50% of the vote in the primary.

But Rispone, a Baton Rouge industrialist, is feeling something of a backlash among Republicans. U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents Acadiana, became on Wednesday the first member of the congressional delegation to endorse Abraham. Seven of the eight members of the delegation are Republicans, including Abraham.

“The path to recovery for Louisiana has now been illuminated,” Higgins said in a statement. “Ralph Abraham is a solid conservative, a dependable ally to President Trump, a very, very good man ... and he is my friend. He will defeat John Bel Edwards and the liberal machine. He will bring jobs and economic growth back to Louisiana.”

Conservative talk radio show host Moon Griffon endorsed Abraham on Tuesday, and Scott McKay, publisher of the Hayride, a conservative website, blasted Rispone in columns on Tuesday and Wednesday for targeting Abraham.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise didn’t endorse Abraham but expressed his unhappiness with Rispone.

“I don’t think Republicans should be attacking Republicans,” Scalise told host Jeff Crouere on his Ringside Politics radio show.

Edwards, meanwhile, announced his own major endorsement Wednesday – that of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, which also backed him in the in 2015 runoff when Edwards was first elected. The International Union of Police Associations, which the Edwards campaign said represents more than 2,000 law enforcement officers across Louisiana, also endorsed the governor.

"I have tremendous affection for law enforcement in general and sheriffs in particular," Edwards, the brother, son, grandson and great-grandson of sheriffs in Tangipahoa Parish, said on his monthly radio show, Ask the Governor. “I’ve had my door open to the sheriffs all four years and I just think that makes a difference.”

Edwards’ twin endorsements add to a line of defense that the governor erected quickly following Rispone’s attack ad, which accused Edwards of engineering the release of “dangerous criminals” from prison.

The commercial was referring to a package of 10 bills passed by the governor and the Republican-majority Legislature in 2017 that changed sentencing and probation laws to make it easier for non-violent offenders to win early release.

Three different conservative-oriented groups that supported the legislation – Smart on Crime Louisiana, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and Right on Crime – all condemned Rispone’s ad on Tuesday, saying the changes are saving money and will make Louisiana safer.

In recent weeks, polls have shown Edwards with about a 50-50 chance of winning the primary outright.

A Nexstar poll released Thursday put Edwards at 41%, followed by Abraham at 24% and Rispone at 16%. The survey, taken from Sept. 14-17, also gave 2% to Oscar “Omar” Dantzler, a Democrat from Hammond, 1% to Gary Landrieu, a no-party candidate from Metairie, 1% to Patrick “Live Wire” Landry, a Democrat from New Orleans. Sixteen percent of respondents were undecided among the 600 likely voters. The margin of error was 3.8%.

Pollster John Couvillon said he believes that Edwards’ actual number puts him at 46% once undecided black voters are allocated to the governor’s column based on their traditional voting patterns. That would still put Edwards below the magic 50% mark, however.

“Ralph Abraham is likely to make the runoff, but he has not shown an appreciable increase in strength,” Couvillon said in an interview.

An April poll by Couvillon put Edwards at 38%, Abraham 23% and Rispone 7%.

Nexstar is airing the debate on WGNO in New Orleans, WVLA and WGNB in Baton Rouge, KLFY in Lafayette and on other stations in Shreveport, Monroe, Lake Charles and Houma.

The forum calls for no opening statement, 60-second answers to questions and 30-second follow-ups. Each candidate will have 30 seconds to close. The moderators are Nexstar anchors Fred Childers, Jacque Jovic and Chad Sabadie.

Each candidate will have a goal on Thursday night, political analysts said.

For Edwards, it will be to remain calm and stay on message – he’ll note that the state went from a deficit to a surplus under his watch, that the unemployment rate is low and that he expanded Medicaid to some 460,000 working poor citizens, about 10% of the state’s population. Edwards also will punch the others when necessary.

He is battle-tested from the 2015 governor’s race but admitted during his monthly radio show Wednesday that he will feel a bit anxious beforehand.

“But at the end of the day, I think it’s just a normal process and quickly once the event starts things settle down and you’re fully engaged and before you know it the hour is gone,” he said.

For Abraham, he will need to show that he is the conservative candidate who can go toe-to-toe with the governor and challenge him on the state’s lackluster economy and its business climate. Job growth has been slow since Edwards took office in January 2016, and he and the Legislature raised sales taxes to help close the budget gap.

“We’re looking at this as the biggest and best opportunity to show not only that Ralph Abraham is the best choice to be the governor of Louisiana but also the guy who can beat John Bel Edwards in the runoff,” said John Vick, Abraham’s campaign manager.

Rispone will be the wild card since, unlike his opponents, he has yet to appear in a candidate debate and has avoided the media throughout the campaign. Will he continue to tie himself to President Donald Trump? Will he continue his attack on Abraham or just focus on Edwards? Can he handle tough questions from the moderators?

“Eddie’s mission is to contrast what a businessman, conservative and outsider can do in politics against two career politicians,” said Rispone spokesman Anthony Ramirez. “Eddie Rispone plans to do for Louisiana what Donald Trump has done for America.”

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.