So far, this week has been a bit of a dud in the governor’s race. It’s likely that will change tonight given the fact that Eddie Rispone and John Bel Edwards will be debating on all of the Louisiana Public Broadcasting stations around the state.
So far it’s the only debate Rispone has agreed to, and the chances are pretty good it’s the only one he’s going to agree to. He turned down an appearance on the Gray Television stations across the state that had been set for Nov. 12, possibly because of the involvement of some national figures coming into the state that day.
Also probably because Rispone doesn’t need debates to win this election. Rispone needs Republican voter turnout, and that’s it. So long as he manages to pull Ralph Abraham’s voters to his side the race is over – particularly given the expectation that the runoff electorate will be older, whiter and more conservative than the primary electorate, which is usually the case. There isn’t all that much Rispone will be able to do in debates, particularly debates run by Louisiana’s legacy media which has been thoroughly one-sided in their coverage of the race to date, to persuade any undecided voters.
Still, a political race is a series of arguments on issues, and it’s a rare race that can be won without winning some of those arguments. And now that Edwards is reeling after having failed to get to 50 percent in the primary it’s going to be the incumbent governor going on the attack. Rispone is going to have to at least hold his own, and here are the five things he’s going to need to say in order to do so.
1. The “Empty Suit” counterattack
Edwards’ narrative this week, particularly after Rispone didn’t show at a candidate forum Monday put on by the Baton Rouge Press Club, is now that Rispone is essentially an empty suit who lacks the knowledge and skill set to govern the state – and that narrative has been amplified by the media which is now complaining that Rispone hasn’t put out detailed plans on how he’d address various issues. He’s going to get a question based on that narrative, either from Edwards or one of the debate moderators, and it’s going to involve the Press Club no-show.
The right answer goes something like this: “You’re right. I passed on the Press Club. My sense is that would have been a media ambush and since it wasn’t televised it wasn’t really worth my time, and given that Rispone had Mike Pence in town that day and raised the better part of a million dollars from Louisianans who are desperate to get John Bel out of that governor’s mansion.
“I’m frankly a little insulted at the idea I don’t have the skill set to lead this state. I’ve built a great company that puts food on the table for thousands of families and does highly specialized work on major industrial projects, and I came from nothing to do that. I’ve been involved in trying to improve our education and workforce for a lot of years and built relationships in business and politics during that time which gave me exactly the knowledge and skill set we sorely lack at the top right now. My opponent was a back-bench legislator owned by special interests with zero business experience other than running a little law firm in a tiny backwoods town where his family had controlled local government like a fiefdom for four generations. I know that because my family came from there and got out when the opportunity presented itself.
“As for a plan to get this state moving again, I’m not going into too many details here and now, but essentially what it comes down to is taxation, regulation and litigation. Everything John Bel has done in those three categories has hampered the private sector’s ability to compete with our neighbors, and if you make me governor I’m going to attack those with gusto just like President Trump has done at the federal level. We’re now one of the nine worst states in the country for business tax climate, and we’ll change that. We’ve got the most onerous regulation in America, everything from occupational licensing to construction permits, and real leadership could ease much of that burden. And we’re what they call a judicial hellhole, because our legal climate is atrocious. You pay for that in high car insurance rates and lost job opportunities, and that’s not even to talk about what John Bel and his cronies are doing with those coastal lawsuits that have killed the oil and gas business in this state. You can’t fix any of that without getting him out of office.”
2. The Lane Grigsby thing
Rispone has already addressed the fact he and Cajun Industries founder and chairman emeritus Lane Grigsby are longtime friends and allies in promoting conservative candidates and causes, but that Grigsby doesn’t “control” Rispone – he said nobody does that. But the state’s media and particularly the Baton Rouge Advocate, is still busy demonizing Grigsby and attempting to smear Rispone based on the relationship between the two, clearly on behalf of Edwards who flapped his gums about that subject a week ago. It’s inevitable that Rispone is going to catch a “gotcha” question about Grigsby tonight.
The answer: “Nobody was talking about Lane until he tried, and we can say badly, to come up with a solution to a strange situation in the state senate race here in Baton Rouge where Franklin Foil and Steve Carter looked like they were tied after the primary. That situation resolved itself and the whole Lane Grigsby controversy was much ado about nothing.
“I’m not going to deny I’m friends with Lane. Lane is a good man who has given selflessly of his time and money for a long time trying to make Louisiana a better place to live and work. It’s a little unnerving that a private citizen is being demonized like this just for being politically active – we get told all the time we should get involved and then when somebody does it this is the treatment they get. Sometimes he’s wrong but at least he’s trying, and the important thing to remember is Lane isn’t working to enrich himself at the public trough. His company doesn’t do a lot of state contracts. But if you go look at who’s supporting the governor, you’ll find the reverse is true. Why are we demonizing Lane Grigsby and not Jim Bernhard or those coastal lawsuit people? They’re the ones who actually fit with the idea of people corrupting politics with money, and yet there’s nothing said about them.”
3. A rift with Ralph Abraham
Edwards is running ads in North Louisiana with footage from a previous debate where Abraham jumped Rispone for running attack ads on him, and those attack ads have created the possibility that some Abraham voters, particularly in North Louisiana, will either stay home or even vote for Edwards in the runoff.
Polling indicates this is maybe 20 percent of Abraham’s voters, so it’s largely an overblown issue, but bringing those people home is the easiest way for Rispone to lock up the election. Therefore it’s a good bet he’s going to get a question about how he could possibly get any of those people to vote for him after the shameful way he treated the congressman in the primary.
The answer to this one isn’t all that complicated, either. “I should point out that Ralph, who is undoubtedly a good man all politics aside, took absolutely no time on election night in the primary to endorse me, so despite all the rough and tumble of a political race he certainly didn’t lose sight of the fact this is about the future of Louisiana and not anybody’s feelings. Like Ralph said the main thing here is to get John Bel out of the governor’s mansion and make a change from the lousy policies and poor leadership and cronyism he’s inflicting on us, so that we can get the state moving again.
“But on a little different level there’s something else that ought to be said, which is that – and I think Ralph would agree with this if you talk to him – the nastiest, most vicious and most untrue thing said about him in the primary was that he essentially was a drug dealer hooking people on opioids because he owned a couple of pharmacies that filled prescriptions for them. It was John Bel Edwards’ camp that pushed that stuff, not our campaign. I thought that was way below the belt, but it’s also important to remember that nobody is worse when it comes to ugly, negative politics than the man I’m sharing this stage with.”
4. “Nationalizing” the race
This is related to item #1 to an extent, and it’s a bit of an offshoot of the narrative about how Rispone is simply riding Trump’s coattails rather than addressing the issues facing the state. There’s an element of truth to that, but on the other hand voters haven’t been particularly interested in state politics issues in this campaign based on media coverage and water cooler conversations. In any event, he’s going to catch a question about his dependence on Trump and Pence carrying him home. Here’s how he ought to answer that.
“The only reason I’m getting this question is that the President and Vice President are popular here in Louisiana and having them come down helps me. On the other hand, John Bel gets no help from anybody in the Democrat Party at all. Bill and Hillary Clinton were in New Orleans over the weekend and there wasn’t a peep from either one of them about John Bel – because it wouldn’t have helped him at all. He sure can’t get help from Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer or Bernie Sanders or Liz Warren or any of the others running for president. They all repel more voters than they attract in this state.
“Of course, John Bel has done his share of nationalizing this race. Gumbo PAC, which is his baby, has taken $4 million from the Democrat Governor’s Association, he’s reeled in big money from the national unions and he’s had people like Stacey Abrams and Ralph Northam bankroll him pretty good. He’s done that despite telling people here he doesn’t agree with them on things like guns and abortion, but as we all know he tends to lie about things. Remember when he wasn’t going to raise taxes once he took office? And if you really want to watch him squirm, why don’t you ask him whether he’s with all those national Democrats on impeachment?”
5. The Medicaid freeze
It’s likely there will be more than one question about specific state policy issues, but the one most likely to come up involves statements Rispone has made to the extent that he’d like to freeze enrollment in the state’s Medicaid expansion until it can be sorted out whether people enrolling in it are actually eligible.
This is being sold as Rispone knocking poor people off Medicaid, which is a lie, and easily debunked.
“First of all, let’s recognize that Medicaid expansion isn’t supposed to be about the truly poor people. Those are already supposed to be on Medicaid. This is about, essentially, putting lower-middle class people into the program. But what has happened since John Bel took office is that he had the Louisiana Department of Health sign up more or less all comers onto government health insurance, and it’s been a complete mess. Some 1,600 people with six-figure incomes were found enrolled in the program, and an audit found as many as 80 percent of the new enrollees were ineligible. By the end of the year they’ll have knocked well over 100,000 people out of the program because they shouldn’t have been in it in the first place. There’s a real effect of that, by the way – when you load up the Medicaid rolls and don’t have an increase in the supply of doctors to see them, it means people on Medicaid have to wait for access to the health care system and we’ve had a not-insignificant number of them drop dead for lack of health care. There’s your concern for the poor on his part.
“So given that chaos, which looks a whole lot like John Bel trying to drop money out of helicopters in an attempt to buy votes without giving any regard to whether he’s running a competent program, yeah – we need to take a step back and sort this thing out to see if we’re doing the best job for the poor while getting an actual bang for the taxpayers’ buck. Nobody can look at what he’s done over the last four years and say with a straight face this has been done well.”
Rispone doesn’t have to knock this thing out of the park. All he really needs are a couple of good zingers or responses to Edwards’ attacks. For example, if Edwards tries to hit him in the opening statement with some sort of “it’s good to see you Eddie, it feels like you’ve been ducking me,” Rispone could hit back with this: “Well, I’m a businessman, governor, and as you probably noticed by now we tend to go to great lengths to avoid you. At least I haven’t left the state like a lot of my colleagues have over the last four years.”
Again, this race won’t be decided by debate performances. It’ll be decided by turnout. But this is a ground ball Rispone needs to run out, and he certainly has an opportunity to beat the throw tonight.