On Saturday, the 4 leading Republican candidates to fill the open U.S. Senate participated in a lively and sometimes feisty forum in Bogalusa. The forum, sponsored by the Washington Parish Republican Executive Committee, was held at the First Pentacostal Church and had about 20 in attendance.
The four candidates who showed up were Congressman Charles Boustany, Congressman John Fleming, state Treasurer John Kennedy, and retired Air Force Colonel Rob Maness. Former Congressman Joseph Cao declined the invitation, no doubt disappointing the legions of Cao fans.
Right from the opening statements the fireworks were beginning. When Congressman Fleming talked about taking on Republican leadership and opposing former Speaker John Boehner in his opening remarks, you could see Congressman Boustany rolling his eyes and a smirk on the face of Maness, who has attacked Fleming for supporting Boehner in the past. These four guys clearly don’t like each other.
All of the candidates tried out their best populist messaging. Kennedy said he was running because “I want my country back.” He also said “I’m not a part of the club in Baton Rouge and I won’t be a part of the club in Washington D.C.” Fleming talked about his battles with Republican leadership. Maness said he wasn’t a politician, which earned him an attack by Fleming in his closing statements calling him a politician “even if he couldn’t successfully get elected.” Even the “establishment candidate” Boustany talked about his dissatisfaction with Washington.
There are significant issue disagreements beginning to emerge. For example on illegal immigration, Charles Boustany is open to some sort of legalization for illegal immigrants after the border has been secured. Rob Maness was the only candidate to explicitly rule out any sort of legalization for illegals. Maness has even come out against guest worker programs, which Boustany defended on stage. John Fleming denounced “catch and release” and talked about his bill to require the completion of the fence on the border. John Kennedy said the laws on the books were enough and they just needed to be enforced.
John Kennedy spends much of his time attacking the “United States Congress”, which is a jab at both Boustany and Fleming. Boustany hit Kennedy back when the issue of Puerto Rico debt came up. He compared Louisiana’s finances to Puerto Rico’s and reminded everyone that Kennedy is Louisiana’s chief financial officer.
When it came to for everyone to talk about the government departments they would abolish, they took the time to jab Charles Boustany. All of them named the Export-Import Bank, which Boustany voted to reauthorize. Other favorite targets to abolish or cut were the Departments of Education, Energy, and Commerce; the EPA, and the two congressmen wanted to abolish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created in Dodd-Frank.
Here are a few closing thoughts on each candidate:
Charles Boustany: Probably helped himself the most in my opinion. He was the most knowledgeable on Federal issues of any of the candidates on stage. His message touts his effectiveness in Congress and he claims he’s the guy who gets results. But Boustany’s challenge is going to be how he responds to attacks on his spending record in Congress. He really didn’t respond to the attacks on the Ex-Im Bank, but then again he wasn’t really challenged all that much.
John Fleming: Let’s get the negative out of the way first. Fleming makes Jeb Bush seem high energy at times. That simply won’t work on a stage with John Kennedy and Rob Maness. But Fleming is the only guy who is really trying to appeal to social conservatives and it’s paying off. He was one of the only candidates who had actually supporters there. The Fleming campaign also is not finally realizing they can’t ignore Rob Maness and I expect them to begin launching sustained attacks on Maness soon enough. Fleming has to take Maness out to have a shot at the runoff.
John Kennedy: Kennedy is the front runner for a reason, he’s the most likable guy in the race. He has the whole grandpa demeanor and the cute lines like “I would rather drink weed killer than support Obamacare.” He’s also very good at putting daggers in his opponents without coming off as too mean. But he needs to be a little more knowledgeable on Federal issues.
Rob Maness: Again, let’s get the negative out of the way first. He needs to stop yelling at these debates. His fans love it, but I’m not sure anyone else does. Other than that he’s clearly getting under the skin of his rivals, particularly Fleming. Maness is a much improved candidate from last time and is more knowledgeable on the issues. He was also one of the only candidates who had supporters in the audience. Finally, there’s probably no one more knowledgeable on national security than Maness.