BATON ROUGE, La. — Just days before the start of early voting, Gov. John Bel Edwards' Republican opponents struck at his hallmark achievements Monday in hopes of keeping the Democratic incumbent from outright victory in an election less than three weeks away.
The Deep South's only Democratic governor continued to defend his record and suggested that U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone were trying to divide Louisiana residents into the partisan lines of Washington as they seek to force him into a runoff from the Oct. 12 election.
"We're not going to turn back. The people of Louisiana won't stand for it," Edwards said at an event held by the Press Club of Baton Rouge, the second face-to-face debate featuring all three major candidates.
While both Abraham and Rispone criticized taxes as too high and government as too bloated under Edwards, Rispone described both his opponents as "career politicians." Rispone, the owner of an industrial contracting company who is largely self-financing his campaign, said he was the only candidate to offer a new approach, rooted in his business background.
"We need to do something different, and it starts by electing a different kind of governor," Rispone said.
Abraham, a third-term congressman from northeast Louisiana, ignored Rispone in his comments. Abraham focused his attention on Edwards, accusing the governor of damaging Louisiana's economy and chasing away job opportunities.
"I'm just tired of losing as a state," Abraham said. "With me as your next governor, Louisiana will start winning."
Voters will begin casting their ballots Saturday in the weeklong early voting period.
Polls show Edwards well ahead of his competitors. But all contenders run on the same ballot regardless of party, with Edwards hoping to win more than 50% of the vote in the primary. If he doesn't reach that benchmark, he'll face the second-place finisher in a two-man competition in November, and that could change the race's dynamics.
Abraham and Rispone accused Edwards of inept execution of his criminal sentencing law overhaul and his Medicaid expansion program. Without offering specific proposed changes, the Republicans talked broadly about working with law enforcement to improve the criminal justice system and eliminating Medicaid waste.
Edwards replied that he worked with law enforcement on the bipartisan, legislatively-approved sentencing changes and that the Trump administration recognized Louisiana for its work to root out Medicaid abuse.
The candidates remained short on details of their agendas, even when asked to name three specific policies they'd enact as governor.
Rispone said he'd push for a constitutional convention. He said the current governing document is too cluttered with provisions that should be left to state law, such as language that makes it harder for lawmakers to cut spending in certain areas, but he didn't describe what he wants to strip from the constitution.
Edwards said he'd "maintain the momentum that we have" and work to increase education spending.
Abraham said he would reverse Edwards' changes to the Industrial Tax Exemption Program, which gave local governing officials the ability to decide if businesses get a multiyear break from paying local property taxes. He said he'd call a special session "to address infrastructure, taxes and budget reform," without spelling out what he wants the session to accomplish.
Asked about climate change and Louisiana's increasing coastal land loss, all three candidates said the oil and gas industry could help with the response. But both GOP contenders took a swipe at Edwards for encouraging parish governments to sue oil and gas companies over wetlands damage.
"I've not filed a single lawsuit against them. Congressman Abraham has. He's filed for damage to his property caused by oil and gas interests. That's a fact," Edwards shot back, holding up a copy of Abraham's lawsuit.
Abraham said the lawsuit was resolved without court action. He described it as a dispute with a subcontractor digging a pipeline ditch at his farm who "wouldn't come clean up their mess."
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