The Virus, Shutdown And Congressional Races: What’s Happening In LA-5?

Nobody is paying attention yet to any congressional races given we’ve all got other things on our minds, but it’s instructive to see what the effect of the Wuhan coronavirus and the resulting economic shutdown are having on the early stages of those races nonetheless.

Here in Louisiana, only one of the six congressional seats is expected to be seriously contested – that being the 5th District, where Ralph Abraham has honored his pledge to retire after serving three terms. In the other five seats the incumbents, Democrat Cedric Richmond in New Orleans and Republicans Clay Higgins (Opelousas), Mike Johnson (Bossier City), Garrett Graves (Baton Rouge) and Steve Scalise (Jefferson) aren’t getting challengers of any note.

By contrast the 5th District race would seem to be wide open, though at this point it looks like it might shape up to be a fight between two Republicans – Luke Letlow, who was chief of staff to Abraham, and state representative Lance Harris. None of the Democrats running appears to have a chance to win; one of them, Cande Christophe, raised $19,000 in the first quarter and spent $28,000 and is already in debt.

Letlow and Harris appear pretty similar in ideology, but in other ways they’re very different candidates. And with the special circumstances the virus and the shutdown have caused it’s going to be interesting to see how those differences play out in the unusual campaign they’ll have to wage.

Start with Harris, who for the next month or two is likely to be the more noticeable seeing as though he’s a member of the state legislature and when they go back into session on Monday we’ll be seeing some high-profile fights over the budget, an economic recovery and reform package, tort reform and whatever else will be fought over. Harris’ strategy so far seems to be to ride the heightened public attention to state politics into a social media-based campaign. Toward that end he had this Facebook video which made the rounds a bit this week…

It was a good statement on the economic shutdown and the necessity for ending it, and it managed over 500 shares. Assumedly Harris will be cranking out a lot more of those videos and framing himself as a potential congressman by commenting on events at the Legislature.

Doing that is a way of grafting onto himself the power of incumbency, as he’s an incumbent of sorts – not in the 5th congressional District seat, obviously, but as an elected legislator he can say his qualifications are closest to the job he’s running for.

But you can’t base a congressional campaign solely on social media. Especially not in the 5th District, which is the most rural and least-connected to the internet of any in the state and even nationally. At some point it’s going to have to be mass media and retail politicking.

Two of Harris’ three major disadvantages are related to that.

First, the first-quarter campaign fundraising filings showed that Harris hasn’t even begun raising money. That makes for an inconvenience for him, because he’s now going to be stuck at the Capitol for at least the next month as the legislative session resumes on Monday, and probably beyond that given it’s expected there will be another month-long special session immediately following the end of this session June 1. There is also talk of another special session in September or October, and if that happens Harris will have campaign time eaten up by legislative duties.

Harris, who owns a chain of convenience stores, has the ability to self-fund his campaign, and it’s expected soon he’ll drop a couple hundred thousand bucks into his campaign account though he hadn’t done so by the end of the first quarter. But what self-funders so often come to find out is the fundraising process isn’t just useful because it brings in money, it’s also useful because it requires interaction with the voters and finding out what they’re looking for. Asking a donor for money is just a microcosm of asking a voter for a vote; they’ll tell you what they want and unless you satisfy them you come away empty-handed. Harris can self-fund his way onto the airwaves, but the time and effort of that fundraising process, if it’s lost to his legislative duties, presents a hill to climb.

Harris’ third problem is he’s from Alexandria, and the 5th District in its current basic formation has never been represented by somebody from Alexandria. The Monroe area, which Letlow is from as is the third candidate, Ouachita Parish police juror Scotty Robertson, traditionally owns the seat. The way you beat that is to campaign like crazy in Monroe and win over the folks there.

But how do you do that? You can’t hold campaign events, because public gatherings are out amid the virus and the shutdown. With social distancing in force it’s virtually impossible to canvass door-to-door, not that you’d do much of that anyway in a congressional race. That means Harris is likely to be stuck on social media all the way to July or August between his legislative duties and the effect of the virus.

You’d say that makes Harris a long shot to beat Letlow, but it’s too early for such a statement. Letlow’s March 31 statement showed him with $130,000 in cash on hand, and we’re told he’s managed to push that number over $200,000 in the past month. That’s a pretty good number, but Harris could match it with one check from his personal finances – so Letlow can’t say yet that his fundraising efforts have given him a decisive edge in much other than his contact list.

The other problem Letlow has which is different from Harris’ situation is name identification. There are lots of folks in the 5th District who know who he is based on his service to Abraham, and Abraham’s support will certainly help, but Letlow has never run for anything before and your Joe Six Pack voter has no clue about a Luke Letlow. Obviously that’s what a campaign is for, and Letlow will have more time to reach Joe Six Pack than Harris will while Harris is stuck at the Capitol, but again…how do you reach those voters?

Just like Harris, Letlow can’t hold a bunch of events, at least not for a while, and there is no speaking circuit for him to make the rounds in. He’s stuck trying to reach voters in ways which haven’t been successfully used in such a race – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so forth.

Which he’s doing. Letlow’s Facebook page is pretty active, with several posts a day covering everything from announcing it’s copperhead season to sharing articles about meat and poultry processing. Letlow has about 2,900 Facebook followers on his page so far, which compares to Harris’ 2,200.

In the end, this race is likely to break late and it’s going to be what shows up on the airwaves which decides it. Neither candidate has enough money to start that at this stage, and without the traditional means of early-season campaigning available the 5th District congressional race is likely to be an exercise in political catatonia until the fall.



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