BAYHAM: Lessons From The 5th District Election

These are interesting times for reality television in Louisiana.

Last week word spread that the A&E reality show chronicling the life of former four term governor Edwin Edwards and his young wife got shelved. And now a political newcomer can credit a reality show for his election to Congress.

At least in part, though the simplistic narrative that Duck Dynasty put someone in office might be too tempting for the media to pass up.

Celebrity blessings are helpful, particularly when they come from locals, but a 19 point landslide cannot be credited to the Duck Commander alone.

Aside from the prominent role Phil Robertson played in his campaign (perhaps the ultimate counter to his opponent’s backing from the NRA), Vance McAllister won due to broadening his appeal for the runoff, geography and the perception that the special election was engineered to help his opponent.

Though the Fifth District is fairly conservative, about a third of its electorate consists of black voters, who overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

So while State Senator Neil Riser doubled down on his arch-conservative credentials, McAllister soft pedaled on ObamaCare, stating his opposition to it while also recognizing the reality that it’s not going anywhere until the GOP wins the US Senate and White House.

It was the politically shrewd play to win over a sizable part of the 30% of the vote that went to Democratic candidates in the primary.

Secondly the map was in the Ouachita-resident McAllister’s favor. The ridiculously sprawling Fifth District runs from the Arkansas border to the St. Tammany Parish line, though it is very much a north Louisiana district.

Lincoln and Ouachita parishes are two of the larger concentrations of voters in the district and they voted heavily for the local candidate, giving McAllister a ten thousand plus vote margin.

In contrast Riser, who represents a geographically large but sparsely populated senate district, lacked a vote bloc to counter McAllister’s running up the score up north.

In essence the election was largely over the moment Riser was joined in the runoff by a Republican from the northern part, as parochialism and not ideology would determine the outcome, as it did in the 2012 Louisiana Third District all-GOP runoff.

Thirdly, the circumstances by which the election came about haunted Riser’s campaign from the beginning, adding an outrage component that transcended party and geography.

Initially Congressman Rodney Alexander announced he would not seek re-election but then decided to immediately resign to take a job in the Jindal Administration. Curiously enough, Riser, a Jindal legislative ally seemed to be immediately prepared to take advantage of this surprise development. On top of that, Jindal’s political operation was heavily involved in Riser’s campaign.

While Louisiana does not lead the nation’s list in education, the residents are not stupid. Riser’s opponents constantly brought the matter up, turning support from political establishment types added to people’s suspicions.

This angle was employed aggressively by former Congressman Clyde Holloway of Rapides Parish in the primary and with Holloway pushing McAllister in the runoff, the Rapides vote (the only parish that could blunt the Ouachita vote) turned the McAllister runoff victory into a rout.

Could Riser Have Won?

Defined early on as the beneficiary of a shady political deal, Riser needed to be in a runoff with either a Democrat or Holloway, the former nationalizing the contest to his benefit (a la Mark Sanford) while the latter would have made it about age. Riser’s superior campaign organization in contrast to Holloway’s would have probably made the difference. Instead it came down to minority outreach, perception and geography.

The Other Losers

Though his name was not on the ballot nor did he issue an actual endorsement in the race, the McAllister blowout was bad news for Governor Bobby Jindal.

Considering how closely his political operation was interwoven in the Riser campaign and the enormous time Jindal had invested as a candidate and as governor in northeast Louisiana, Riser’s connection to Jindal proved to be a major liability in the general election.

Following the GOP loss in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest (a race Jindal was involved in through his position as Republican Governors Association chairman), Jindal hasn’t had a good political news day since he danced on Mitt Romney’s grave with his “stupid party” media splash.

At a minimum the results of the Fifth District election will erode his political capital in Baton Rouge and lead national political observers to wonder whether Team Jindal has what it takes to effectively compete in Iowa 2016.

Though the state Democrats might cluck that McAllister’s election was a referendum on Jindal, the party itself squandered an opportunity to effectively compete for the seat by not getting their house in order and fielding a single electable candidate.

Instead they cut their base up in the primary and were relegated to backing the less outspoken of two conservative Republicans.

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