BATON ROUGE, La. — While three candidates trying to force their way into a TV debate in Louisiana’s U.S. Senate race weren’t successful, their court hearing this week underscored the troubles for lesser-known contenders seeking the attention needed to win statewide.
How can a candidate meet polling criteria when pollsters don’t include them in their list? Should candidate forums give everyone an opportunity to speak, even if they have little money to run campaigns? How do you sift through a race with 24 people competing?
Judge Tim Kelley refused Thursday to stop the debate or to force Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Council for A Better Louisiana to add more candidates to the Oct. 18 debate stage in Ruston besides the five who met established criteria.
The state district judge denied the injunction request sought by Senate candidates Troy Hebert, Beryl Billiot and Charles Marsala. The decision came after a two-day hearing that explored the influence of money in politics, the expectations for a successful campaign and the difficulties in drawing attention to less conventional candidacies.
“It’s now become about the money instead of the man,” said Hebert, a former state lawmaker and former state alcohol and tobacco control commissioner. He is running without party affiliation and refusing to take campaign donations.
Hebert, later joined by Billiot and Marsala, challenged the debate criteria as unfair, particularly the 5 percent polling and $1 million fundraising requirements.
Billiot, an independent who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year, and Marsala, a Republican former small town mayor in California, haven’t been included in most Senate race polls ahead of the Nov. 8 election. Hebert polled at less than 1 percent in the independent poll used for the debate, but argued he reached 5 percent when the margin of error was included.
“How do we know what the polling is when we’re not offered up in that poll?” Billiot said.
All three candidates said the $1 million threshold favored the rich and the well-established politicians, denying less traditional candidates a path to get out their message and to add fresh perspective to the race.
“There’s a lot of great ideas coming from people who don’t have a million dollars,” Marsala said.
Billiot and Marsala said they’ve been campaigning through social media, posting videos and policy platforms on YouTube and Facebook.
They said they could campaign more cheaply and didn’t need the hefty fundraising dollars to get support — if they could participate in the campaign debates and forums hosted by different groups around the state. Some candidates have shown up at forums to which they weren’t invited, only to be turned away.
All three candidates have run into a problem that pollsters, media outlets and forum sponsors have struggled with since two dozen people signed up to run for the open seat being vacated by Republican David Vitter: a difficulty in how to handle such a large list of candidates.
Barry Erwin, president of the Council for A Better Louisiana, and Beth Courtney, president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting, said a debate with two dozen candidates wouldn’t be useful.
“What we are trying to do is to give candidates enough time for meaningful discourse,” Erwin said. “With 24, that would be totally impossible.”
Marsala noted the debate criteria created an all-white candidate forum and excluded all the minority contenders. A Native American, a disabled man and black candidates didn’t make the cut.
The Oct. 18 debate, to be televised on public broadcasting channels around Louisiana, will include U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, lawyer Caroline Fayard, U.S. Rep. John Fleming and state Treasurer John Kennedy.
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