Much has been made of the endorsement by the cast of the inexplicably popular A&E reality show Duck Dynasty for Vance McAllister’s surprising triumph over state Sen. Neil Riser in Saturday’s runoff election for the 5th Congressional District. But my money’s on shutdown fatigue and McAllister’s uncompromising endorsement of compromise in Washington, D.C., as the real source of his surge from political unknown to U.S. congressman.
McAllister won with pragmatism, and he won big — 60 to 40 percent — over Riser, who many saw as Gov. Bobby Jindal’s hand-picked heir to retired Rep. Rodney Alexander. (Alexander resigned last summer and took a job in the Jindal administration, and Riser’s campaign was immediately off to the races, leading many to suspect JindalCo was trying to rig the election, a charge Jindal denied.)
Both candidates in the runoff were conservative Republicans, but where Riser toed the tea party line and styled himself a champion against all things President Obama, McCallister was practical-minded, pointing out that the more than three dozen votes in the U.S. House of Representatives to repeal Obamacare was a fool’s errand as long as Democrats control the Senate. McAllister had the audacity to suggest that rather than repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans and Democrats work together to make it better. And, running in a district marked by widespread poverty and a lack of access to affordable health care, he even had the temerity to argue that Jindal should have expanded Medicaid, a key feature of Obamacare. Riser campaigned with the slogan, "Common Sense Leadership for Louisiana."
Riser pounced on these positions, and with outside money from tea party groups slammed McAllister in TV ads as being pro-Obamacare. Yet although fewer than 19 percent of registered voters turned out for Saturday’s runoff, McAllister garnered enough support among the Democrats who did bother to vote, and they comprise 50 percent of eligible voters in the 5th — Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, a Dem and also-ran in the 5th District primary, endorsed McAllister in the runoff — that the election titled decidedly in McAllister’s favor.
McAllister pumped an estimated $800,000 of his personal fortune into the race; that no doubt helped, as did the Duck Dynasty support (and fundraisers). But voters in the 5th District were faced with a choice between the shutdown obstructionism represented by Riser and a more pragmatic, consensus-minded approach favored by McAllister and the latter won.
Does this spell the beginning of the end of the tea party’s radioactive brand of governance? We can only hope, but probably not. Congressional districts across the country have been gerrymandered into apoplectic extremism by state legislatures, and in the many states with closed primaries voters who turn out tend to be more ideologically rigid, leading to candidates who reflect this dynamic. But congressional campaigns across the country in 2014 are no doubt already studying Saturday’s Louisiana runoff for lessons.