Sadly, for the third time in its history Louisiana has had someone duly elected to Congress die before taking office for the first time, with this regrettable occurrence reverberating outside of the state that could trigger distasteful Democrat calculations.
The unpredictable Wuhan coronavirus struck down Republican Luke Letlow mere days before he would have been sworn in to serve the state’s Fifth Congressional District. In 1872 and then in 1882 it had happened, although in both instances just after the election and well before the next Congress would meet.
His new House neighbor GOP Rep. Mike Johnson, a few years older than Letlow’s relatively youthful 41, earlier this month weathered a bout of the virus with little difficulty, and Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, a couple of decades older, did the same earlier this year. Unfortunately, you never know with this virus, and at this difficult time Louisianans should offer up prayers for him and his family.
In terms of practical political matters, the Constitution requires that Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards set up a special election in the near future to fill the seat – which has seen two such contests in the past two months. As with the special election to replace Democrat Rep. Cedric Richmond, tapped by Pres.-elect Joe Biden for a senior White House position, this could piggyback onto spring municipal elections, meaning it all will have to come together in less than three months. (Richmond, around Johnson’s age, contracted the virus about when Letlow did, but has had no reported difficulties with it.)
Perhaps no district would have had less need for potential candidates to have a go at the office. Letlow’s win earlier this month seemed to set him up for a stay as long as he liked. The compressed nature of what will come, right after a lengthy campaign, demands even greater prior preparation. All we know is that it almost certainly will elect a Republican, just as Richmond’s almost certainly will elect a Democrat.
Ordinarily, this might put GOP state Rep. Lance Harris, who this fall battled Letlow into a runoff, in the pole position. Certainly, he has name recognition no one else in the district could have. But Harris already used up considerable resources earlier this year and therefore actually may be worse off compared to others even with the name recognition he obtained.
Instead, this creates an opportunity for a political outsider with superior self-funding ability to win. Keep in mind a roughly similar situation in the district arose in 2013 when Republican former Rep. Rodney Alexander resigned abruptly and within a month an election to replace him was held. While many observers believed this aided the existing state senator whose district overlapped the more rural areas of CD 5, the GOP’s Neil Riser (who now serves in the state House), instead a wealthy newcomer to politics, Republican Vance McAllister, spent voluminously and quickly to make the runoff with Riser and then defeated him a month later. (Within a year, McAllister would self-destruct and be out of office by the next term.)
Unless the election happens later rather than sooner. Biden has had to take care in selecting House Democrats for his administration given the party’s narrow majority, which could slow down his legislative priorities for months until special elections refill the vacancies (presumably with Democrats). Yet with a Republican seat now empty, this reduces the risk of agenda failure.
And the longer it remains empty, the easier it will be for Biden and Democrats. The operative Louisiana statute for the election gives no timeline, although the expectation is that in the first year of a term that governors call for elections expeditiously. But there is nothing in the law that compels a governor to call one earlier rather than later, and in other states within the past two decades some vacancies early in a first term had their elections come in the fall.
Partisan as he is, it’s not inconceivable that Edwards would schedule it in October to give congressional Democrats more breathing room. However, problematic for him is the Richmond vacancy; he can’t call a special election for that one at a time different than for CD 5 without that demonstrating blatant partisanship. Since the two spots now are interlocked, delay won’t manufacture a partisan advantage. Indeed, Richmond now may resign earlier rather than later in January to hasten two outcomes.
The lamentableness of an event doesn’t erase the political ramifications that may extend from that.