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November 16’s open primaries upset political bosses

25th November 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Political observers are wondering if Louisiana’s governor became duck meat on Saturday, November 16, 2013, thanks to an outsider sentiment, a long-bearded reality-TV star, and the open primary.

The former factors in the victory of Republican Vance McCallister in the Louisiana’s 5th Congres­sional District over Gov. Piyush Jindal’s hand-picked candidate GOP State Sen. Neil Riser can not be understated.

The sheer idea of the “Duck Dynasty” star Willie Robertson and his family backing McCallister drove at least a few percentage points in the North Louisiana seat amongst Republican voters. Without the open primary, though, and its ability to let registered Democrats back one GOP candidate over another, the newcomer’s special election to Congress would not have been possible.

For McCallister who supported Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and still managed to get elected with 60% in a safe Republican seat—with every GOP bigwig from Jindal to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor standing behind his opponent—is incredible. Assuming such a moderate stance would usually prove suicidal in a closed GOP primary in other states for a Republican candidate like McCallister. Elsewhere Riser would have won the primary, and consequently the safe (gerrymandered) GOP district. The Democrats and independents who pushed McCallister over the top would have had no more impact than Republicans do in major urban municipalities in most other U.S. states.

After all, what other GOP candidate can boast of robocalls featuring Cleo Fields asking Black voters to show up and cast their ballots for the Republican contender? That’s proved even more influential in McCallister’s victory than the help of the Robertson’s clan. Such a cross-party coalition shows open primaries can break political machines, and not just if you have the “Duck Commander” behind you, and allows Republicans and Democrats, once elected to Congress—or any other level of government—to feel comfortable adopting positions in opposition to their leadership or ideological activists.

Many Tea Party leaders decried McCallister’s belief that Bobby Jindal should have accepted the added Medicaid dollars under the Affordable Care Act. The Governor rejected the “free” money, which provided 100 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid to any Louisianan earning less than 138 percent of the poverty level, or $15,800 per year.

After three years, the LA State budget would have to assume the cost of 10% of the expansion, and so Jindal, and Sen. Riser both opposed the expansion, yet McCallister questioned why the state would turn down the excess revenues in the short term, when it cost us nothing. Especially as Governor was cutting the public hospital budgets and Medicaid programs in general due to lack of revenue.

Of course, Jindal was a clear subtext in the race. Though the Governor did not formally endorse, Sen. Riser’s colleague in the state House Jay Morris, R-Monroe, publicly charged that Jindal engineered the race in such a fashion that tip the State Senator off early in order to grant him extra time to gather a campaign team ahead of the other candidates

The special election was triggered after Congressman Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, the longest serving member of Louisiana’s US House delegation, revealed he was stepping down in mid-session to become Jindal’s veterans affairs secretary.

Alexander’s an-nouncement surprised everyone.

The fashion in which the 5th Congressional District Special Election came to be called left a sour taste in the mouths of many voters, even some of the most loyal GOP electorate. Fourteen candidates ultimately qualified to run, from former Congressman and current Public Service Commissioner Clyde Holloway to marquis Democratic recruitments like Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo and State Rep. Robert Johnson.

In fact, Mayo running alone would have likely made the runoff with Riser. Only the presence of two other Democrats on the ballot, Weldon Russell, and Marcus Hunter, matched with Rep. Johnson and Green Party candidate Elliot Barron, managed to divide the Left’s vote just enough so none made it. (Mayo earned 14.82% in the primary, with Russell at 2.47%, Hunter at 2.99%, Barron at .48% and Johnson at 9.64%. McCallister’s second-place finish on Oct 19th was just 17.79%.)

While the 5th District overall lists as “safe Republican”, one must remember that Rodney Alexander first won it as a Democrat, and Democratic voters have a disproportionate influence here—almost unique amongst Federal GOP House seats. That’s not so surprising when one considers that Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District ranks as the state’s largest geographically, encompassing all or parts of 24 parishes in the northeast and central portions of the state as well as the Florida parishes. It’s also one of the poorest Congressional Districts in the country, with nearly 25 percent of its population—more than 750,000 people—living below the poverty line in 2010 and 21 percent without health insurance.

Most importantly, African-Americans constitute 33.1 percent of the electorate, an unusually high number for a seat that normally votes the straight Republican ticket in federal and presidential contests. If a GOP candidate can tap into those Black voters in an Open Primary, and manage to motivate economically disadvantaged Caucasians who might not have otherwise cast a ballot, he can win decisively.

That’s exactly the strategy McCallister managed in the runoff. On the conservative-populist side, he trumpeted the endorsement of not only the Robertsons (in their full “Duck Dynasty” gear), but also that of his primary rival GOP PSC Commissioner Clyde Holloway, a hero to social conservatives. On the Democratic side, McCallister won Mayor Mayo’s backing early in the runoff and actively courted Black leaders in the seat, ultimately winning Cleo Fields and others active support on November 16th.

Riser’s media campaign against him may have, ironically, helped this strategy. The State Senator blasted McAllister for his sympathy on Medicaid expansion and other aspects of the ACA stating “a vote for Vance McAllister is a vote for Obamacare.”

McCallister opposes much of the overall ACA legislation, though, leading Riser to accuse him of flip-flopping on the issue by telling Democrats he supported the healthcare law and Republicans that he did not. Of course, some might argue that McCallister’s position of tacit support of elements of the bill resembles Mary Landrieu’s, and that reasoned approach motivated some Democrats to vote.

McCallister’s Campaign manager Josh Robinson told KATC that he thought Riser’s negative ads were one reason his candidate won, adding his team “ran a different campaign than we think you’re going to see run across the country this year.”

“We built a broad base coalition,” Robinson said, thanking Holloway, Democratic Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo and the crew from Duck Commander for their support. “It’s not about ideology; it’s about getting behind the right person.”

McAllister refused to go negative during the campaign, telling the media he was proud he “never once went to the dirty side of politics.”

This article originally published in the November 25, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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