RUSTON — Major candidates vying for Louisiana’s U.S. Senate seat clashed Tuesday night over health care, finances and each other’s records in their first televised debate, slamming each other as they sought to break away from the pack in a race that has stayed stubbornly tight in the final weeks ahead of the Nov. 8 election.
Republican U.S. Rep. John Fleming struck quickly at both of his GOP opponents, hitting state Treasurer John Kennedy for running years ago as a liberal Democrat and endorsing John Kerry for president. Fleming suggested U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany wasn’t fully committed in his opposition to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul and helped boost the country’s debts.
“You can run, but you can’t hide, Charles,” Fleming said.
Boustany said Fleming was twisting his record and comments. Kennedy said he was targeted because he’s leading. He repeatedly trashed the performance of Congress, saying “they ought to be ashamed of themselves,” without naming his GOP opponents who serve in the U.S. House.
Democratic lawyer Caroline Fayard, who has never held elected office, also struck at Kennedy for voting against a debt refinancing that she said helped fund health care and education programs, suggesting the treasurer was bad at finances. She chastised all the men on stage as career politicians who lived off taxpayer salaries, “who keep promising to make things better but never do.”
“These men talk a lot about themselves. But they don’t talk about you,” Fayard said. She ended her closing argument by saying: “My name is Caroline Fayard, and I’m not one of the good ol’ boys.”
Democratic Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a former state senator, said Kennedy was improperly claiming legislative victories as part of his record as treasurer, after Kennedy talked about helping to set aside billions of dollars into education and health care trust funds from Louisiana’s tobacco settlement.
“Don’t tell these people that,” Campbell said in the debate at Louisiana Tech University. “You didn’t vote for it, because you had no vote.”
Kennedy replied that he helped convince lawmakers, even if he couldn’t vote to create the trust funds himself.
In a portion of the debate where candidates asked one another questions, Campbell took issue with Kennedy’s statement that he’d “rather drink weed killer” than support the federal health care revamp or become a political insider. Campbell described the statement as “way out of line.”
“Mental health is a real challenge to our state,” Campbell said. He asked Boustany: “Do you think Mr. Kennedy should apologize for joking about suicide?”
Boustany agreed Kennedy should apologize: “Mental health is not a joking matter for anyone.”
Kennedy jumped in by saying, “I’d rather drink weed killer than answer that.”
Asked about the vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, Campbell and Fayard said the Senate hasn’t done its job in refusing to act on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February.
“I think if you don’t like a guy, vote against him,” Campbell said.
The three GOP candidates said they don’t support Garland’s appointment, while Campbell and Fayard didn’t say how they would vote on the nominee.
Campbell said he’d seek a Supreme Court justice who opposes abortion and “has a heart.” Boustany said he doesn’t “want activists on the bench” and wants someone who respects the separation of powers. Fleming said he wouldn’t support anyone who talks about the U.S. Constitution “being a living document” that changes over time. Fayard said she supports “jurists who are going to apply the law, not legislate from the bench.”
All five candidates said they supported U.S. airstrikes in Iraq in the fight to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group.
Though two dozen contenders are on the Nov. 8 ballot to fill the seat, only five met the polling and fundraising criteria set by the Council for A Better Louisiana and Louisiana Public Broadcasting to reach the debate stage. The whittling of the candidate list for the debate bumped Republican white supremacist David Duke and sparked a lawsuit from former state lawmaker Troy Hebert, an independent who called the criteria unfair. A judge rejected the lawsuit.