Conservative Louisiana voters who seek an alternative to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards have been looking for a way to tell the two leading Republican gubernatorial candidates apart since qualifying closed Aug. 8. It hasn’t been easy.
Congressman Ralph Abraham, a physician from Alto in northeast Louisiana and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone both tout their conservative credentials, and both promise a U-turn from the general direction in which Edwards has led the state.
Rispone, an avid outdoorsman, poses with his compound bow and gushes over President Donald Trump. Abraham avers that there are only two genders and, yes, he too loves the president.
The Louisiana GOP recently endorsed both men, which underscores their political fungibility. They differ on the death penalty — Rispone, a Catholic, opposes it; Abraham wants to expand its application — but otherwise only an auditor could divine significant policy differences between them.
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Edwards casts both men as promising to return Louisiana to the fiscal train wreck left by former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who inherited a $1 billion surplus and left the state with a $2 billion deficit — and gutted higher education and public hospitals in the process.
Edwards and the GOP-controlled state Legislature spent three years arguing over how to clean up Jindal’s fiscal mess. They ultimately compromised on a sales tax hike of slightly less than half a penny. It’s noteworthy (though apparently lost on Abraham and Rispone) that the sales tax boost required a two-thirds vote in legislative chambers dominated by Republicans. Both Abraham and Rispone vow to reverse that decision, though neither has a specific plan to cover what will surely be another monster deficit — or another round of draconian cuts — if they succeed.
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Last week I spoke to the Rotary Club of Metairie, where one member of the audience asked me to outline the differences between Rispone and Abraham. My initial reply was, “Rispone is the short guy who sounds like Ross Perot and says ‘Trump! Trump! Trump!’ Abraham is the other guy.”
On a more serious note, I pointed out that Abraham, as a congressman, has substantially more policy chops than Rispone, who never has held public office and therefore has no voting record on matters of statewide consequence. On the other hand, Rispone, as a multi-millionaire funding his own campaign, has a much larger war chest than Abraham, who struggles to match Rispone’s (and Edwards’) paid TV time. I added that if the congressman had Rispone’s money, he’d no doubt pose a much bigger threat to Edwards; similarly, if Rispone had Abraham’s political experience, he likely would be more familiar with the intricacies of public policy.
Rispone, in fact, seems determined to avoid policy specifics as much as possible. That may be the real difference between him and Abraham. The Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL), a respected, nonpartisan government watchdog group, recently asked the three leading candidates to answer a lengthy questionnaire about the challenges facing Louisiana. Abraham and Edwards offered detailed responses, which can be read at www.cabl.org. Rispone did not respond.
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Meanwhile, distinguishing Rispone from Abraham is rather like telling Tweedledum from Tweedledee — a challenge that continues to befuddle Louisiana conservatives.