Gubernatorial candidates, from left, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, Eddie Rispone, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, face each other in the second debate, hosted by Louisiana Public Broadcasting, on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019, at Angelle Hall on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

SHREVEPORT – The three major candidates for governor on Wednesday sought to untangle a growing body of attacks lobbed at one another and project an air of strength heading into election day, in the final televised debate before Saturday’s open primary.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, the Democratic incumbent, distanced himself from national politics, urging voters to focus on his record in Louisiana and not President Donald Trump, who will rally against him in Lake Charles Friday.

His two main Republican opponents, Congressman Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone, cast aside earlier pledges to stay out of intraparty battles, warring with each other at length over Common Core educational standards, broken campaign pledges and other issues.

All three had some of their most contentious exchanges with one another to date, especially during the portion of the debate where they posed one another direct questions – many of which echoed attack ads that are dominating the TV airwaves in the waning days of the race.

The governor is seeking to win the election outright on Saturday by winning more than 50% of the vote, and his Republican opponents are simultaneously trying to keep him under that mark, force a Nov. 16 runoff and be the candidate in that second spot.

“My opponents and the partisan forces in D.C. would like nothing more to nationalize this race,” Edwards said, an oblique reference to Trump and his allies visiting the state to stump for the GOP candidates. “We’re doing so much better now ... We can either keep moving forward or we can go back into the ditch.”

Rispone, who in recent weeks has risen in independent polling, hit Abraham for quietly abandoning a pledge to donate his Congressional salary to charity – an accusation that Abraham denied flatly, though his staff confirmed he stopped the practice after his first term earlier this year. Rispone again played up his background as the co-founder of ISC Constructors, an industrial contracting firm in Baton Rouge, and repeatedly linked himself to Trump.

“We don’t have to accept being last,” he said. “We can do better. But you’ve got to start by electing a different type of governor.”

Abraham accused Rispone of lying about his record in attack ads, calling the spots “distasteful” and “sad,” and claiming he has taken the high ground despite his own negative ad launched in response to his Republican challenger’s attacks. After Abraham asked Rispone why he supported Common Core educational standards, the two accused each other of lying, an accusation that was tossed around repeatedly throughout the night.

Edwards blasted Abraham for missing more votes than any member of Congress, and hit Rispone for donating to former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s presidential campaign in 2015. Abraham responded that the governor’s election is too important.

Rispone said the donation to Jindal was made by his company “unbeknownst” to him, though the donation was in his personal name. Rispone is a longtime GOP donor who has supported Jindal in the past.

Rispone’s question to Edwards, asking why he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, illustrated a GOP priority in the race, to tie Edwards to a national party that is politically unpopular in Louisiana. Edwards, a former Democratic leader in the Louisiana Legislature, breaks with the national party on issues like abortion and gun rights. He tried to keep the focus on state issues, contrasting the state’s budget stability with the deficits he inherited from Jindal.

Edwards again found himself defending his hiring of Johnny Anderson, who resigned in 2017 amid sexual harassment claims, and whose tenure Republicans have seized upon in the waning days of the campaign to keep him under 50% in Saturday’s election. The woman who accused Anderson, Juanita Washington, has appeared alongside the anti-Edwards group Truth in Politics to lambaste the governor in a press conference and in a TV advertisement running statewide.

The governor said Anderson came recommended by a host of people, and sidestepped a question about whether he was vetted properly after the debate. Instead, he read from a letter of endorsement written by Jill Craft, Washington’s lawyer in the ordeal.

Both Republicans criticized the state’s current $500 million surplus under Edwards and said Edwards has mishandled the economy.

“It’s not a surplus,” Abraham said. “He overtaxed you. It’s your money.”

All three candidates have offered few detailed policy plans.

Edwards says he’ll protect what he has already done. Abraham offers up standard Republican talking points on most policies. Rispone says he’ll call a constitutional convention, without saying what in the state’s Constitution he wants to change.

The race has drawn millions in spending from the candidates and outside groups, like Super PACs as well as organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors. As of the latest reports, due 10 days before the primary, the three major candidates had spent nearly $25 million on their campaigns. Medium Buying, which tracks ad spending, said on Twitter Wednesday there has been $30.7 million in TV and radio ad spending in the race so far.

The debate was hosted by Gray Television and took place in the studios of KSLA in Shreveport, unlike the first two debates, where the candidates faced off before a live audience of hundreds. Three lesser-known candidates – Gary Landrieu, a Metairie independent; Patrick “Live Wire” Landry, R-New Orleans; and Oscar “Omar” Dantzler, a Democrat from Hammond – didn’t poll high enough to participate.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com