For the first time in nearly three decades, this year’s governor’s race will feature televised debates that include the incumbent seeking reelection.
This is good for democracy, and for voters who want to make an informed choice. It’s also probably good for Gov. John Bel Edwards, who this week said he’d participate in three broadcast forums with his two main Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone.
Edwards’ offer to debate, rather than pursue the Baton Rouge equivalent of a White House Rose Garden strategy, wasn’t necessarily the obvious move.
The last two Louisiana governors who sought second terms, Bobby Jindal and Mike Foster, stayed above the fray, with no negative electoral consequences. Back in 1991, Buddy Roemer did debate his primary opponents, including then-former Gov. Edwin Edwards and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. That election didn’t exactly work out for him, or for the state, although Roemer’s decision to debate surely wasn’t a deciding factor.
In fact, a commonly held piece of political wisdom is that comfortable officeholders shouldn’t directly engage, that sharing the stage with challengers elevates their relative status and diminishes the inherent advantages of incumbency. After all, sitting governors have no trouble attracting media attention and getting their message out. It’s the upstarts, particularly lesser-known ones, who have to try to prove that they too belong on the big stage.
Yet the current Gov. Edwards is in a different spot than Jindal in 2011 (before his poll standings took a precipitous plunge) or Foster in 1999.
Neither had an opponent who had any realistic chance of winning. Foster faced then-U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat in a state that was already trending to the right, and he was plenty popular. Jindal was such a shoo-in that the Democrats didn’t even bother to back a challenger.
Edwards has a lot going for his reelection bid too. His poll numbers are solid, if not spectacular. Surveys show that his agenda has widespread support. He can credibly boast that he played a big part in digging the state out of the financial hole he inherited from Jindal, and that he couldn’t have done so without cooperation from the GOP-majority Legislature. And a slew of potentially strong challengers — U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves and Attorney General Jeff Landry — all remain on the sidelines.
But Edwards also has a soft spot that neither Jindal nor Foster had, and that’s the “D” attached to his name. In a vacuum, Louisianans tend to choose Republicans over Democrats, so Edwards has good reason to not create a vacuum. That’s where debating his opponents comes in.
Even Edwards’ preemptive offer makes sense on a number of levels. For one thing, it gives him the upper hand in the debate-over-the-debates and blocks his opponents from claiming that he’s anything less than transparent. Abraham tried to seize the initiative after Edwards’ announcement by calling for six showdowns, one in each congressional district, instead of three. It came off as excessive and kind of silly, given that all these debates should be televised statewide. Rispone, meanwhile, said he was fine with three.
Debating his opponents will also give Edwards a valuable platform for more substantive matters.
He knows what his critics are going to say about him, that he’s an outlier in a conservative state, a tax-and-spender, a Hillary Clinton supporter. He needs to counter that narrative with his own, which paints him as a mainstream, straight-shooting problem-solver able to work across the aisle, including with President Donald Trump. The goal here is to define himself, not to let his critics do it for him.
And honestly, Edwards doesn’t just need to debate, he’s probably itching to. He’s good at it, and clearly likes the story he has to tell. Why wouldn’t he take every opportunity he can get to tell it?