BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With Louisiana's Election Day just five weeks away, candidates running for governor outlined their ideas on how to address the state's most pressing issues during the first major televised gubernatorial debate Thursday in the hopes of standing out from the pack and catching up to the early GOP front-runner who skipped the event.
The debate, hosted by WWL-TV Channel 4, provided some long-sought clarity on where candidates stand when it comes to certain laws and proposed legislation that have dominated conversations in the Capitol over the past year, including Louisiana's near-total abortion ban, a prohibition on gender-affirming medical care for transgender youths, proposals to raise the minimum wage and redistricting of congressional maps.
With no incumbent on the ballot this year, Louisiana’s gubernatorial election has attracted seven major candidates. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic governor currently in office in a Deep South state, is unable to seek reelection due to term limits, meaning Republicans have a huge opportunity to seize control of the state’s executive branch.
Under the state’s “jungle primary” system, candidates of all party affiliations are on the same Oct. 14 ballot. If nobody tops 50%, the two leading vote-getters advance to a general election Nov. 18.
Candidates who participated in the debate were GOP state Sen. Sharon Hewitt; Hunter Lundy, a Lake Charles-based attorney running as an independent; state Treasurer John Schroder, a Republican; Stephen Waguespack, the Republican former head of a powerful business group and former senior aide to then-Gov. Bobby Jindal; and Shawn Wilson, the former head of Louisiana’s Transportation and Development Department and the only major Democratic candidate.
Only the top five polling candidates were invited to take part. State Rep. Richard Nelson, a Republican, missed the cut.
Most noticeably absent from the debate was the race's early front-runner. State Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican backed by former President Donald Trump, opted out of the event after raising questions about one of the sponsors.
Landry has missed several other prominent forums with candidates, The Advocate reported. He has committed to a Sept. 15 debate in Lafayette sponsored by Nexstar Media Group, however.
Over the past month, most of the candidates have jabbed at Landry on social media, in ads and in media interviews, calling him “a bully,” accusing him of backroom deals to gain support and associating him with a political culture of cronyism and corruption. A few candidates took the opportunity Thursday to make additional digs at the Republican.
“I showed up, unlike the attorney general,” Schroder said. “He's been a no-show for all these issues. And I think he's been a no-show on crime for the last eight years.”
However, for most of the debate, candidates focused on outlining their platform, experience, proposed policies and ideas for bettering the state.
Wilson, the lone Democrat, set himself apart as the only candidate who supports a ballot initiative to allow citizens to vote on abortion laws. In addition, he is in support of adding exceptions to the ban in cases of rape and incest. Wilson was also the sole candidate to speak against the state's recently passed ban on gender-affirming medical care for transgender youths.
“I talk to parents who are afraid for their children now because of these extreme policies and positions,” Wilson said. “I think it is time to put those extreme policies to bed.”
When it came to crime, a top concern of voters, the three Republicans — Hewitt, Schroder and Waguespack — touted their tough-on-crime stances and more funding for police. Lundy, a political independent, said “we have to start young and prevent crime,” stressing a need to improve the state's education system.
Candidates also emphasized the state's property insurance crisis, with everyone, except Schroder, saying outright that they would call a special session to address the issue.
Thursday was the first of four debates planned for this month, giving candidates more chances to drive home their goals for Louisiana, and even confront Landry in person. The next debate, which Landry has committed to, will take place Sept. 15.