In the aftermath of the 60-40 blowout win for Republican businessman and first-time political candidate Vance McAllister over state senator Neil Riser on Saturday, there is bound to be a great deal of analysis on offer as to exactly what happened to turn a race most of the state’s pundits thought would go Riser’s way into a massive landslide for the upstart.
We’re still picking through the detritus ourselves, but there are a few things which are apparent upon an initial survey.
First, McAllister’s victory was forged in the four most populous of the 24 parishes the 5th District includes. He slaughtered Riser 69-31 in Ouachita Parish, 67-33 in Rapides, 67-33 in Lincoln and 70-30 in Morehouse. Those numbers are amazing, and they indicate a number of things. One of them is that Riser’s mass media campaign, which would have penetrated most deeply in the Monroe and Alexandria media markets, did him zero good at all – and McAllister’s media was more effective. Another was that McAllister had a coalition of influential people in those four parishes which was unbeatable.
Take Ouachita Parish, for example. The vote there – which was 24 percent of the total vote in the district – gave McAllister about half of his 17,400-vote margin in the race. And he got it because he had the endorsement of Jamie Mayo, the Monroe mayor who came in third in the primary with 15 percent of the vote, plus the Duck Dynasty gang (both Phil and Willie Robertson endorsed McAllister and did appearances for him at events and on TV), plus the Biedenharn family of Coca-Cola bottling fame. The fusion of the black mayor, plus the West Monroe Duck Commander redneck royalty, plus the Monroe old-money establishment, is an amazing coalition, frankly – it’s worth wondering if that coalition has ever been assembled before in a truly contested race.
In Rapides, McAllister drew from the Clyde Holloway endorsement. Holloway finished fourth in the primary and backed McAllister, and it’s clear he pulled a lot of weight there. But in Lincoln Parish, McAllister also had the backing of the Davison family, of Davison Trucking. And he also had the backing of Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigsby.
Grigsby, Holloway, the Biedenharns and the Davisons, we’re told (in some cases because it’s quite public knowledge), were all on McAllister’s side as a result of the “deal” it’s widely believed was cut between Riser, outgoing congressman Rodney Alexander and Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose political guru Timmy Teepel and his firm OnMessage were part of Riser’s team. Those influential donors and political players were all upset over what they saw as a back-door attempt to “put the fix in” to give Riser Alexander’s seat, with Alexander’s payoff being a cushy job heading up the state veterans’ affairs department.
All of the principals in this supposed deal deny that it happened. The fact is, though, those denials – true or not – didn’t convince anybody. And because they didn’t, Riser largely fell victim not to his well-established conservatism, which is what you’re probably going to hear a lot about when the national pundits get hold of these results, but a different kind of numbers game.
Consider this – Riser received only 32 percent of the vote in the primary. That was in an electorate which gave 68 percent of its vote to Republican candidates (18 percent of which went to McAllister). Riser had a conservative path to victory, but he needed two things: first, he had to have a runoff electorate that was a few percentage points more conservative than the primary electorate was, and second, he needed to get more than half of the 36 percent of the Republican voters from the primary who didn’t vote for him. The first part seemed like it was pretty doable; with two Republicans in the runoff there wouldn’t seem to be much reason to think the Democrats would come out in force for Saturday’s vote, and the early vote turnout results indicated the runoff electorate would be more Republican.
But the second part was always going to be a hill to climb for Riser. Because with 18 percent in the primary, McAllister was already sitting on half of that 36 percent Riser needed, and with Holloway endorsing McAllister and Jay Morris, who had seven percent in the primary, also expressing displeasure with the “deal,” the other 18 percent was somewhat unfriendly territory.
As it turned out, Riser got just less than half of the 18 percent he needed to make it to 50 percent. And he got none of the libertarian or Democrat vote from the primary; McAllister got all of that. But given that he was starting with three-quarters of the “anti-deal” GOP vote as a base, he was coming from a strong position. The decision to come out for the Medicaid expansion and against privatizing the Charity hospitals didn’t have to be an ideological play for McAllister; it worked for him as an anti-Jindal play, and that was good enough to pull the Democrat vote while solidifying the majority of the Holloway and Morris vote.
Thus the 60-40 final.
There was something else, too, which was that while Alexander was seen as being in Riser’s camp due to the “deal,” his chief of staff Adam Terry – who had been the subject of lots of rumors as being next in line for the seat before Riser emerged as the purported favorite – was most certainly not in Riser’s camp. Terry was, in fact, a regular at McAllister’s events, a reported member of his team and the latest rumor says Terry is keeping his job as the chief of staff for the new congressman. The rumor also has it that Terry got a fairly sizable case of the screaming reds about the “deal,” and thus worked to insure McAllister would win.
And that was a significant factor in some of the more rural areas in the district where McAllister either won or mitigated Riser’s advantage. Morehouse Parish being an example, and Concordia (which Riser won, but only by a 55-45 count despite the endorsement of the Concordia Sentinel). Riser won Franklin Parish just 54-46 despite the endorsement of the Franklin Sun, and McAllister landed 57 percent of the vote in both Grant and Jackson Parishes. And so on.
The takeaway there is that Alexander’s office has long been known for strong constituent service, and for bringing home lots of juicy pork to the local folks. As chief of staff, much of that – or at least the communication of it and the relationship-building surrounding it – has Adam Terry’s name on it. So when Terry calls all those constituents for whom he’s spent the better part of the last decade and tells them he’s with McAllister, you can bet it brings out the vote.
At the end of the day, the team McAllister built is a very, very impressive one. To do it under the radar as he did, while financing the operation out of his own pocket and not holding high-profile fundraisers all over the place, is almost unprecedented in recent Louisiana history.
And because McAllister pulled it off, perhaps the main effect of the Vance-A-Lanche will be on Jindal’s political future, and that of his team.
It certainly looks like a mistake for Jindal to have kept such a low profile in the 5th District race. With the public perception that Jindal had cut a deal to get Riser a congressional seat, Jindal needed to do something to dispel that perception – or to make the public come around to the idea that Riser was worth doing a deal for. Jindal needed to be very much out front as part of Riser’s team, extolling his virtues and reminding the voters about all the great things Riser has done as a state senator to help the state. Either that, or Jindal needed to loudly dispute the allegations of a deal; he could have explained that hiring a former congressman to run the state’s veterans’ affairs department brings tremendous contacts and resources to the table, and that he was lucky to get Alexander for that job and no, there was no deal for Riser and here’s why that was ridiculous.
Instead, Jindal kept quiet. That didn’t help Riser, and it didn’t dispel the perception that a deal was cut; in fact, what it looked like was that a deal WAS cut and that since people complained about it Jindal ran for the hills. That left Riser high and dry.
And meanwhile, Riser had a lot of Jindal’s campaign team working for him. Including the folks from OnMessage, who are coming off a major black eye for their work on behalf of the Republican Governors’ Association in the Virginia governor’s race last week. That was fairly well known, and yet Riser didn’t get any help from Jindal himself. Or Alexander, for that matter.
You could say that not having Jindal or Alexander campaigning for him might have helped Riser given all the accusations and other gripes about the governor, but Riser was already seen as in bed with them – so he got all the negatives anyway, and when they didn’t publicly work on his behalf he was denied any of the positives.
And with the result being a 60-40 shellacking, Riser has paid the ultimate price. What happened to him Saturday was a debilitating political beatdown; that kind of loss virtually assures he’s never going to be able to win a race above the state senate seat he holds now. And that’s a shame; Riser has been a very reliable conservative vote in the state senate and deal or no deal he would have made a reliable conservative congressman. One wonders what the effect this loss will have on Riser as a state legislator; loyalty to Jindal thus far has earned him a pretty sizable disappointment on the most important Election Day of his career. The next time he’s asked by Jindal for a tough vote, how is he going to react?
That having been said, on pretty much every other issue outside of Medicaid expansion McAllister looks perfectly acceptable, and his background – as a Christian conservative, as an entrepreneur, as an anti-Washington establishment type – is quite intriguing. Earning 60 percent of the vote makes him at least potentially a heavy hitter in state Republican politics, so there is no reason for conservatives to lament his victory.
But you can bet the state’s Democrats will seize on McAllister’s victory and his position on Medicaid as a huge victory and a repudiation of Jindal. They’ll dine out on that for weeks, forgetting about the fact that the new congressman in the 5th District is…not a Democrat.