Most voters who pay attention to the issues have already made up their minds in Louisiana’s governor’s race. There’s incumbent John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, friend of labor unions, plaintiff attorneys and government-centric types. And there’s businessman Eddie Rispone, a Republican, anti-tax advocate, friend of industry and favorite of the private sector crowd. The difference between the two candidates couldn’t be clearer.
And yet recent polls show 6% of voters still undecided. They’re likely low-information voters who tend to pick candidates on their likeability. If these voters end up deciding the tight race, Wednesday night’s debate performance on Louisiana Public Broadcasting could end up costing Edwards the election. Most people were probably watching game seven of the World Series when it aired live, but in the age of social media the debate is available online and should end up with a wide viewership considering it will be the only one between the two candidates. Just a few hours after the debate, close to 4,000 people had already viewed it on YouTube.
It’s hard to imagine Edwards feeling good about his performance. He came across as agitated, almost unhinged, loud and overly defensive. He even at times seemed like a world-class jerk. “You don’t know what you don’t know, and what you don’t know is astounding," Edwards roared at his 70-year old opponent.
Edwards has a history of nastiness. Four years ago, in a cringe-worthy moment in his gubernatorial debate with Republican David Vitter, Edwards piously bragged about giving 100% to his wife. It was a clear shot at Vitter, who had apparently cheated on his wife with a prostitute. And then there’s the now-infamous moment with Republican state Sen. Sharon Hewitt during a budget hearing last year. Hewitt was challenging Edwards on his dubious claim he cut $400 million dollars from the budget. Edwards didn’t like being challenged by Hewitt and became so aggravated that he condescendingly told her, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.” Hewitt considered the comment sexist.
During Wednesday's debate, both candidates challenged each other on issues, but Edwards’ attacks were personal. “You don’t have a plan because you don’t care,” Edwards screeched at Rispone, who remained calm and collected throughout the debate.
At one point, Edwards interrupted Rispone, telling him, “I’ll let you lie, and then I’ll respond.” Edwards consistently accused Rispone of lying. He also described several of Rispone's answers as phony. Rispone criticized the governor for raising $5 billion in taxes. Edwards called the $5 billion-dollar figure phony. Truth is, it’s more like $7 billion in new taxes during the lifetime of the rate hikes — especially when you when you factor in the business tax incentives Edwards gutted with his pen.
Edwards clearly got the best of Rispone when it comes to substance. Rispone, with no experience in politics, came across as ill prepared and lacking in specifics. Rispone promised that if elected, he’d create 25,000 new jobs. Edwards quickly interrupted and claimed to have already created 36,000 jobs. But the state has lost a total of 5,900 jobs since Edwards was elected in January of 2016. Rispone should have known that and corrected the governor.
Rispone did score one point when Edwards deceptively accused him of benefiting from $506 million in tax breaks. Rispone countered he didn’t receive a dime in tax breaks. He said the plants he did business with got the tax breaks, not his company. Rispone had finally caught Edwards in one of his deceptions. Edwards then tried to weasel out of it by reminding Rispone he used the word “benefited.” Edwards was obviously trying to convince viewers Rispone had received the tax breaks himself.
Edwards' worst moment in the debate came when Rispone confronted him for calling seven special sessions trying to raise taxes. Edwards became visibly angry, yelling at Rispone and bragging about not quitting on the people of Louisiana and claiming he would have called eight or nine special sessions because he doesn’t quit.
Edwards’ Wednesday debate performance reeked of desperation. He seemed like a candidate who knew he was in trouble, and that any criticism could sink him. On substance, he won. On likeability, he did himself no favors.
Email Dan Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.