BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Facing his two Republican challengers for their first head-to-head debate, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards fended off criticism Thursday that his tax policy and spending decisions are driving people from the state and hampering economic growth.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham tangled with Edwards most directly, with the men often talking over each other in disagreements as Abraham accused the Democratic incumbent of repeatedly turning to “taxes, taxes, taxes” from the state’s already strapped citizens. At one point, Edwards told Abraham: “You are just 100% false.”
Businessman Eddie Rispone, running in third place in the polls, was sometimes sidelined by the back-and-forth disputes, at one point asking about a question: “Do I get to answer that one?” He dismissed the exchanges as the arguments of “two career politicians,” continuing to position himself as the outsider even as he and Abraham offer similar negative assessments of Edwards’ performance in office.
While Abraham and Rispone panned the growth of state spending levels and Edwards’ support of taxes to balance the budget, Edwards said he worked with lawmakers of both parties to stabilize the state’s finances and make new investments in education.
The three men agreed on a few points. None supported limitations on semiautomatic weapons. All backed abortion restrictions without exception for victims of rape or incest.
Thursday’s debate was aired statewide, filmed before an audience of hundreds of people on Louisiana State University’s campus, the first of four scheduled debates to feature all three main contenders. The election is Oct. 12, with early voting beginning Sept. 28.
Edwards is hoping to win outright in next month’s open primary by receiving more than 50% of the votes. While all polls in the race have him in the lead, they haven’t shown him reaching that benchmark.
Abraham, a third-term congressman from northeast Louisiana, is the leading Republican challenger, even though Rispone has spent five times as much on his campaign as Abraham.
Rispone, owner of an industrial contracting company from Baton Rouge, is largely self-financing his gubernatorial effort. He has poured more than $11 million of his own money into his campaign account, using several million of it so far. Though he is a longtime donor to conservative candidates and causes, Rispone is making his first bid for elected office.
Thursday’s debate was hosted by LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication and Nexstar Media Group TV stations, airing around the state on radio and television and online.