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Waguespack, Wilson battle for middle ground in Gray TV governor’s race debate

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Waguespack, Wilson battle for middle ground in Gray TV governor’s race debate

Sep 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Greg LaRose
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Waguespack, Wilson battle for middle ground in Gray TV governor’s race debate
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Stephen Waguespack, left, and Shawn Wilson participate in the Gray Television governor's race debate Sept. 26, 2023, at the University of New Orleans Performing Arts Center. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

NEW ORLEANS — The two men polls show in second and third place behind the frontrunner in the Louisiana governor’s race had the stage to themselves Tuesday night at the University of New Orleans Performing Arts Center.

Republican Stephen Waguespack and Democrat Shawn Wilson held an hour-long, genial policy discussion with no real attacks against one another and only minimal references to GOP Attorney General Jeff Landry, who bypassed the debate Gray Television broadcasted on its affiliate stations around the state.

A Gray TV poll of 625 Louisiana voters conducted in September showed Landry with 40% support, with Wilson, the state’s former transportation secretary, receiving 24%.  Waguespack, former leader of the state’s top business organization, polled at 9%.

Candidates had to reach a 5% threshold to participate in the debate, eliminating independent Hunter Lundy (4%) and Republicans John Schroder (3%) and Sharon Hewitt (2%).

The Gray TV poll also found 15% of voters were undecided, and they could be a deciding factor if one candidate is able to sway enough of them into his or her corner. It’s a large enough portion to propel Waguespack into runoff contention or solidify a spot for Wilson. 

Questions Gray TV journalists asked both candidates Tuesday gave each a chance to distinguish themselves from one another — and Landry, who in his absence escaped largely unscathed in the responses from Waguespack and Wilson. 

Landry has participated in only one televised debate and avoided all other moderated events where he had to field questions alongside other candidates. WVUE-TV, host station for the Gray TV debate, reported that Landry attended a private campaign event Tuesday evening in Plaquemines Parish. 

Not surprisingly, Waguespack and Wilson espoused opposing views on Louisiana’s abortion law, with Waguespack saying he was fine with the status quo and Wilson saying he would support exceptions to the ban in cases of rape and incest. 

Wilson said he favors retaining a 0.45% portion of the state sales tax set to expire in 2025, but Waguespack said recent state budget surpluses show it can come off the books.

Waguespack supports giving parents options with state money for public education, while Wilson said Louisiana should “keep the focus on the children we have” and better fund public early, K-12 and higher education.

Both men staked out more distinct positions when asked whether they would keep in place policy Gov. John Bel Edwards pushed — and bipartisan lawmakers supported — to divert nonviolent and low-level drug offenders from state prisons. The Republican-majority legislature has already tried to peel back changes Edwards made through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Waguespack called results from the initiative a “mixed bag.” He said district attorneys have been critical of a mandatory maximum drug offender penalty of six months in prison, which defendants are more likely to accept rather than an 18-month commitment to drug court that keeps them out of jail.    

Wilson said Louisiana has to give Edwards’ criminal justice reform efforts enough time to work.

The only real point of contention between the two candidates was when Wilson claimed he’s the only candidate in the race to commit to keeping the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program in place. Excluding additions made during the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly a half-million people have gained access to health coverage since Edwards made adopting Medicaid expansion his first official act in office in 2016.

Waguespack corrected Wilson, saying every major candidate for governor has gone on the record saying they would retain Medicaid expansion. In April, six of the top seven contenders at a forum committed to the status quo with Medicaid, with Schroder saying “maybe.”        

In his closing remarks, Waguespack appealed to Democrats and asked for their help to propel him into a runoff.

“If you’re voting for Shawn, you’re giving your vote to Jeff Landry,” he said.

A similar statement came from Lundy in the Nexstar Television debate Sept. 16. In August, Lundy finished just ahead of Waguespack in a WWL-TV poll

Although he couldn’t take part in the Gray TV debate, Lundy showed up outside the UNO venue in his custom motor coach to make himself available to voters. Few people attended the debate other than journalists, a TV production crew and the candidates’ campaign staff.  

This wasn’t the first time WVUE-TV’s strict adherence to a 5% support threshold created  controversy among candidates, although the previous time it involved someone many people didn’t want included. In the 2016 U.S. Senate race, the station took heat when David Duke polled strongly enough to take part in their televised debate. John Kennedy went on to win the election.