- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2019

Louisiana’s gubernatorial candidates sparred on taxes and economic issues Thursday night but displayed surprising unanimity on many other hot-button topics.

For example, all three insisted they were firm supporters of the Second Amendment and would not favor the implementation of statewide background checks on all firearm purchases in the Pelican State.

Incumbent Democrat John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic chief executive left in the Deep South, joined his two Republican challengers in saying that not only would they veto any such measure should it come to them, but that a restriction on so-called semi-automatic rifles would also fail with them because it would hurt hunters.

Similarly, all of the candidates adopted absolutist pro-life positions and said that, because they believe life begins at conception, they would not favor even exceptions for abortion in rare cases of rape and incest — a position that actually puts them at odds with a majority of Louisianians, according to recent polls.

Mr. Edwards’ stances mark him as an outsider in the modern Democratic Party but are in line with his attempt to strike a moderate position in a state where President Trump enjoys high popularity ratings.

The governor came into the debate with a comfortable lead in most polls over Republican Rep. Ralph Abraham and Baton Rouge businessman Eddie Rispone, and Democrats are hopeful that he will garner 50 percent plus 1 of the vote, allowing him to avoid a November runoff against a presumably united GOP challenge.

In an effort to chip away at that lead, Messrs. Abraham and Rispone tried to score points on economic issues, arguing that Mr. Edwards’ tax increases in his first term have retarded Louisiana’s economic development in a roaring Trump economy.

“We have the highest sales tax in the nation and that’s why we don’t have the jobs,” Mr. Abraham said. “Our taxes are too high.”

“The idea we’ve done anything other than grow and strengthen the economy is just false,” Mr. Edwards shot back, citing low unemployment and record personal income figures.

The debate on the LSU campus, the first of three scheduled, was surprisingly free of partisan rancor, especially given Mr. Rispone’s recent advertising attacks on the other candidates.

Dipping into the $11.5 million of his own money Mr. Rispone gave his campaign, the executive has ripped Mr. Edwards as soft on crime and Mr. Abraham as a congressional vote dodger who never fulfilled his promise to donate his salary to charity.

“It’s interesting to watch two politicians go after reach other,” Mr. Rispone said at one point. “I’m just a businessman.”

His quip came during perhaps the most pointed exchange of the night over Mr. Edwards’ expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare.

“The easiest decision I made as governor was to expand Medicaid,” Mr. Edwards said, arguing the move saved lives.

But Mr. Abraham said that not only have the ineligible people who got on the rolls cost taxpayers dearly, but a recent cancellation of a major provider contract that has left nearly a half million people uncertain about their coverage was done for political reasons.

“You are just 100 percent false,” Mr. Edwards shot back, noting the company in question had given to both the Republican and Democratic governors’ associations.

When the subject turned to President Trump, Mr. Abraham said he had backed the president since elected, while Mr. Rispone said his success proves that “it takes someone from the outside,” and that he has been unwavering in his support of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Edwards tread carefully on the topic, saying he had a good working relationship with both the administration and congress.

“If we will just refuse to become Washington, D.C., our best days are ahead of us,” he added.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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