BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards accused Republican opponent Eddie Rispone of refusing to tell Louisiana’s voters what he’d do as governor, while Rispone repeatedly invoked his support for Donald Trump, as the two contenders tangled Wednesday in a head-to-head debate ahead of the runoff election.
Rispone continued his strategy of sidestepping specifics of how he’d fulfill promises to boost job creation, cut taxes and increase spending on roadwork or what he wants to accomplish in detail in the constitutional convention he supports, speaking only in broad sweeps about the ideas.
Edwards, a Democrat seeking a second term in office, struck at that lack of detail, suggesting Rispone was trying to bamboozle voters with a Washington-style partisan campaign. Rispone has limited public events since reaching the runoff and eschewed most forums where he’d face Edwards directly, refusing all but Wednesday’s debate.
“You don’t have time for the people of Louisiana. You don’t really want to share your vision because you don’t have one,” Edwards told Rispone.
Rispone countered that he hasn’t evaded voters: “We’ve crossed the state. I’m listening to them, what they’re talking about, what they’re concerned about.”
The two men talked over each other in heated exchanges as they were allowed to ask each other questions, repeatedly accusing each other of dishonesty in their campaign talking points.
“I’ll let you lie and then I’ll respond,” Edwards told his GOP challenger after Rispone accused him of threatening public safety in the criminal sentencing law rewrite he championed.
When Edwards said Rispone’s company benefited from hundreds of millions in state tax breaks and hired foreign workers rather than Louisiana residents, Rispone replied: “That’s a lie. That’s what career politicians do.”
The Deep South’s only Democratic governor is locked in a tight competition with Rispone, a wealthy Baton Rouge businessman who has largely self-financed his campaign. Early voting for the Nov. 16 election begins Saturday.
Republican leaders have targeted Edwards for ouster in a ruby red state that Trump won by 20 percentage points, while Democrats are desperate to hold onto the governorship to demonstrate their viability in Southern states ahead of the 2020 election.
Rispone, with the backing of Trump, has sought to nationalize the race, trying to make national politics a wedge issue that damages backing for Edwards in state where he’s the only Democrat to hold statewide office and where Trump remains popular. Rispone has focused in advertising and social media on his support for a border wall and his backing of the president’s policies on immigration while only lightly referencing state issues.
“You’re always looking to Washington, D.C. There’s not inspiration to be had there,” Edwards told Rispone in one combative exchange when Rispone asked Edwards why he supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.
Rispone said Edwards would back “the next wacko” that Democrats nominate, describing Edwards as a liberal out of step with his state.
“You’re not talking about me. You’re talking about some generic Democrat that’s in your mind,” Edwards shot back.
Rispone panned Edwards’ performance, saying he’s chased away businesses and people with tax hikes. He constantly referred to Edwards as an ally of trial lawyers, while describing himself as a conservative and outsider.
Edwards has tried to skip talk of national politics and criticism of the president. Instead, he focuses on state-specific topics, touting the work he and the Republican-led Legislature did to stabilize state finances and end a decade of budget crises left behind by former Gov. Bobby Jindal. Louisiana has had three years of budget surpluses.
Edwards reminded debate watchers of Rispone’s years of campaign donations and support for Jindal. He said Rispone’s tax and spending proposals would return Louisiana to the budget deficits of years past.
The Democratic incumbent also said Rispone’s plan to “freeze” enrollment in the Edwards-created Medicaid expansion program would eventually boot hundreds of thousands of people from their health insurance coverage. Rispone said the program is rife with waste and abuse.
Wednesday’s debate was held by Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for A Better Louisiana, broadcast on public broadcasting stations around the state and online.