U.S. Representative Rodney Alexander, the most senior member of Louisiana's House delegation, and infamous for his rude and disrespectful, dishonest party switch in 2004, minutes before the filing deadline, stunned political observers in the state with his sudden retirement announcement, followed abruptly by a declaration that he would resign to take a position in the Jindal administration. On paper, this is a net loss. While Alexander had a tendency to make unintelligent remarks about politics and religion on rare occasion, he is a very amicable person, and was actually one of the more moderate, mainstream pro-government Republicans, and in fact typically ranked among the more moderate Republicans (which tells a person where the party has moved). The potential replacement of Alexander with someone along the lines of Tom Cotton and Louie Gohmert would be a net-loss for an already terrible Congress.
Luckily Democrats are not letting this seat go uncontested. http://theadvocate.com/... (Here's their anti-Riser website http://lademo.org/... , fair warning, it doesn't always work, the site seems to be crashed all the time, likely still working out some kinks). What's developing is a surprising race with intriguing dynamics. For the benefit of political junkies and general audiences, I wanted to give a run down of the campaign, which is taking place in my home district and where for once I'm in the curious position of local (among DailyKos Elections people, I always feel like the consummate outsider commentating on things).
First, a candidate run-down.
Neil Riser - A state senator from Columbia, Louisiana who represents a sprawling legislative district that goes through Columbia, LaSalle, Catahoula, Concordia and some of the Feliciana parishes. Part of this being a local race means that I know Riser loosely (more through association). I am much more familiar with his wife (and political manager), Vicki Riser, who I found to be much smarter than Neil Riser's legislative actions have portrayed him, and who has substantial talents upon which he depends. I also know his kids and many others through my high school in Monroe, Louisiana. Neil Riser would not be the worst of the Republican candidates in the national legislature. He's conservative, but he's so ambitious that he would attach himself to the establishment and leadership, just like he has in Louisiana. He would not be one of the intolerable loose-canons. I think Riser has pursued the wrong legislative agenda, carried water for Jindal (after running as an independent, anti-establishment candidate in 2007), and really hurt the state's financial position with his repeal of the Stelly Plan (something which passed in a referendum, only to see corporate and anti-tax interests overturn the initiative in the legislature, after buying the votes they needed). Riser's proved again and again to be narrow-minded, short-sided, and self-serving in his political initiatives, and he is not the person to represent one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation. Mutual associates of mine and Neil Riser have not spoken highly of him, with one saying that they would support Riser just because he would be easier to manipulate. But Riser has gotten the support of every Republian member of Louisiana's Congressional delegation except David Vitter, as well as numerous other national and local Republicans and has an obvious head start (which is an issue that I'll bring up later).
Jay Morris - Morris is a 55 year old political newbie (he looks much younger than that), and Law firm partner. He was first elected in 2011 by defeating incumbent Republican Rep Sam Little of Bastrop (Morehouse Parish seat). What happened was that Little won by just 16 votes in an upset in 2007, and Republicans gerrymandered the seat in 2011, dumping the black voters of Bastrop in with downtown Monroe to create a new AA majority district, and giving Little a solidly Republican exurban seat. The problem was that Ouachita parish came to take up more of the district. The Ouachita parish candidate Morris swamped Little, even after things got quite nasty between the two, and Morris dominated. Morris is a true Tea Party Republican, anti-establishment, and a five star, unthinking, single-minded fiscal hawk. He's also my local state Rep, and I met him in his initial campaign twice. Once, at a 2011 4th of July event in Monroe, I asked him what his legislative priorities would be, and he gave me a profoundly pathetic answer that he was focused on the campaign right then but would research the issues once in office. He has a few strengths as a Ouachita Parish candidate, but he's way behind in money and establishment support that will matter in this short election, and he's mostly unknown.
Clyde Holloway - In a move just as shocking as Alexander's sudden retirement and resignation (as he prepares a gubernatorial campaign) was 66 year old Clyde Holloway's sudden entry and interest in the race for a district he last held more than 20 years ago. Holloway represented a similar district from 1986-1992, but lost when Democrats combined his district into Richard Bakers, and he subsequently lost numberous campaigns. He lost the 1991 gubernatorial race, his 1992 reelection campaign, a 1994 congressional campaign in a south Louisiana district, a 1996 attempt at the redrawn LA-05 (after the courts struck down an AA district in the area as a racial gerrymander), the 2002 race for LA-05 (after which the harsh feelings Hollway had for the Republican who beat him, Dewey Fletcher led him to actually endorse the Democrat in the race, Rodney Alexander), and the 2003 Lieutenant Governor race (where he fell way short of Mitch Landrieu, Mary Landrieu's little brother). Holloway sometimes came very close to winning or getting into run-offs, but it was not until 2009 that he won election again, with a successful campaign for the Public Service Commission. He's a staunch pro-life politician who made his name in Louisiana opposing integration busing programs and promoting the election of Federal judges. He's also the only candidate from vote rich Rapides parish, which makes him the major competitor to Riser, in my opinion.
Jamie Mayo - Mayo is the first black Mayor of Monroe. He's tenure has been decidedly mixed (I say this as a local). Mayo tends to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Mayo also continually seems to be only one degreed removed from the latest scandal, and Monroe city politics is still awful, particularly the school board, and recently we had a sitting city councilman sent to jail for accepting bribes. Beyond that, Mayo declared he would not be taking a leave of absence and will only be campaigning part time. Not a recipe for success. I've heard locals describe this as both a vanity campaign and a whim. Mayo only barely scrapped together a 4th term recently against Ray Armstrong, so he's not who Democrats want in the run off.
Marcus Hunter - A black state representative from Monroe Louisiana. He's very younger (only 34), and just entered politics two years ago. He was a local lawyer, and has a few scattered allies in Monroe's black community. Still, he won an acrimonious Democrat versus Democrat race (for the new AA seat that Republicans crafted out of Bastrop and downtown Monroe, I believe), by only 3 votes in a ridiculously low turnout race. For reference, in that race under 2500 votes were cast, compared to 12,000 in fellow Democrat Mark Johnson's uncompetitive reelection campaign. It leads me to believe Hunter has little base and what he does have is merely convenient for keeping Mayo out of the run off.
Mark Johnson - There is no sense in cherry-coating it; Johnson is a very conservative Democrat. He would be comparable to a John Barrow, Mike McIntyre or Collin Peterson in the House. He's very pro-life and pro-gun, but that's what makes him a compelling candidate; the fact that he has the kind of profile that can still be competitive in this ancestrally Democratic district. Johnson is a state Rep from Marksville, in Avoyelles Parish, and has roots to the Cajun community and is the only Democrat running from the southern end of the district. He also seems to have the stronger establishment and financial backing, as Democrats see him as their best candidate for the runoff. He's not the top candidate (that probably would have been Alexandria's star mayor Jacques Roy, who ended up deciding against a race) that could have run, but he's an A-list candidate for this race, just on the lower end of that list.
Recently gerrymandering sent the district sprawling ridiculously all the way over to Bogalusa, meaning that for the first time perhaps ever, Ruston and Bogalusa were in the same district, a sprawling ugly tendril along the south part of the state. It gave Mitt Romney 62% of the vote (but was one of the few districts where Obama improved upon his 2008 performance), and Mary Landrieu got 48% here in her successful 2008 reelection campaign. 50% of the registered voters are Democrats. 27% are Republicans. It's a sprawling rural district that is roughly 1/3rd AA.
Lincoln - This is the northwest corner, it is dominated by Ruston, and the home of Louisiana Tech and Grambling Universities. Despite these two major universities, one of them among the nation's most storied black colleges, Lincoln Parish is swingish to conservative leaning (even in 2008, Landrieu only won it 49-48). The reason is that Tech attracts a fairly conservative white youth (though not as conservative as the population at large), and the rural 30-40 percent of the parish's population are some of the most conservative in the state (they voted around 95-5 against Obama, and 70-30 agaisnt most Democrats). A successful Democrat like Johnson, being from where he is from, can only hope to tie the parish, and that's his only winning strategy, to keep it 50-50, which means working GOTV in Grambling and Tech is key.
Morehouse - Mary Landrieu won Morehouse Parish by about 7 points in 2008, after winning it by 1 in 2002 and losing it in 1996. It's well on it's way to becoming majority black, but for unfortunate reasons; the old white voters here are dying off and most of their kids have left or are leaving, while the black population has fewer options and mobility. Bastrop was never a nice town, but it at least had a churning economy that supported the parish into the 2000s. Several of Monroe's major employment losses also took a toll on the city and parish in the 2000s (the State Farm office that employed thousands, as well as the General Motors plant), but several years ago the paper mill that was one of the town's last supports shut down, and since then it has had double-digit unemployment and become even worse. I think a campaign against grandstanding and focused on getting redevelopment projects here would be enthusiastically received. GOTV efforts among Bastrop's black community is important too. Johnson would need at least 53% in Morehouse to win.
West Carroll Parish - This parish is one of the most conservative in the state. Very rural, poor, and mainly based on local agriculture, this is one of the few parishes where Mary Landrieu couldn't even crack 35%. It's been Republican for a long time and hostile to Catholic south Louisiana candidates. There are few towns of note, except for Oak Grove the Parish seat, where my great-grandfather preaches to this day. There's also a town called Hope there that voted itself out of existence a while back in order to avoid municipal taxes. It's small and of little consequence in congressional campaign. If Johnson can match Landrieu's 31%, he's at where needs to be.
East Carroll Parish - Yin and Yang. This parish is generally the opposite of it's neighbor. Whereas Landrieu received 31% in West Carroll, her opponent John Kennedy received 30% in East Carroll. This is also a small parish though, without enough population to do anymore than cancel out West Carroll. It's a vision of what Morehouse could become. The only city of note, Lake Providence, founded by Ulysess S. Grant, is famous for its 20+ percent unemployment, 50% poverty rate, and losing 20% of its population in the past decade. It produced disgraced Congressman William Jefferson of New Orleans, and the Wyly brothers, whites who grew up to make a fortune worth billions, which they poured into Louisiana Tech along with millions to Republican candidates and nothing to help revitalize their hometown. Another area trapped in a structural depression that would require a major and innovative redevelopment program to recover. Johnson needs in excess of 70% here.
Franklin and Richland - I combine these two parishes because they have almost the same population, generally cast similar amounts of votes, and vote similarly (though Richland typically votes a tad more Democratic than Franklin). They're very agricultural, evangelical, and though the black populations are not unsubstantial, the parishes are mostly white. I don't know much else about them, so I will leave it at that. They are probably also not very sympathetic to Catholic Democrats, but Johnson needs to at least Mary Landrieu's 2008 totals, (42% in Franklin, and 45% in Richland), to have a shot at winning.
River Parishes (Madison, Tensas, and Concordia) - You could and should include East Carroll with these Mississippi River Parishes, I just wanted to mention East Carroll independently. Madison and Tensas parishes are both heavily black, but with very polarized populations. They are also decrepit and declining in population, decades along in their economic depression and areas that never had money since the Civil War. That seems like the rule for the entire congressional district. Concordia is less black (only 40%), and Neil Riser has represented part of it in Congress, though I would note he lost it by a good margin in his initial race, when he ran against a local candidate. Johnson needs 65% in both Tensas and Madison parishes, and 53% in Concordia.
Ouachita Parish - This is really one of the big two parishes. It is the economic center for northeast Louisiana, and the most populous parish in the district. Monroe is in Ouachita Parish, and is a transportation hub and the site of CenturyTel and a few other successful business ventures. Rodney Alexander was also from this Parish. Ouachita Parish is typically quite conservative, and if Riser makes it into the run-off he has pretty substantial person ties and and support from many local movers and shakers, which will make it a tough task for Johnson to hold the margin down here. It has a growing black population, and is slowly trending Democratic, but still remains a reliably Republican leaning parish. Johnson has to at least get 42% in the run-off to remain competitive in this district, which is very doable as long as he his a good GOTV effort for the south side of Monroe and Richwood. There's a lot of old money here as well as new money, stark divisions between rich and poor, a slowly revitalizing downtown, and a strong Republican tradition.
Winn and Jackson Parishes- I'm combining those I have less to say. These are similar to Franklin and Richland, just on the western edge of the district. Extremely rural, mostly white, evangelical areas. They were until recently still Democratic-leaning locally, but that's fallen apart in the legislative races of late. They depend on agriculture, so making an issue of the farm bill is a good selling point. Johnson has no margin of error, he needs to snatch around 43% of the vote in both parishes.
Caldwell, Grant, and LaSalle Parishes - Neil Riser is from Columbia the seat of Caldwell Parish. What these all have in common is their staunch Republican politics. With Noble Ellington's party switch these areas have no Democrats left in the legislature (Grant, despite being one of McCain's best county at 84%, had a Democratic state rep until that Rep switched before the 2011, and promptly lost of an independent). LaSalle is remarkably racist and one of the first areas in the state to go Republican downballot, back in the 1960s. It's infamous because of the Jena five, which lets you know what kind of place this is. Riser represents a decent sized chunk of this area. Frankly, if Johnson could get 32% over all in this tri-parish area, that would be a feat and accomplishment of itself. Luckily all are rural and don't have a lot of population.
Catahoula Parish - Johnson's gotta win this parish. That's my James Carville accent proclaimation. This is a conservative, and locally swingish rural parish with a growing black population. Landrieu pulled to within 100 votes of winning it in 2008, but Johnson has to make up some ground here, and is from the neighboring Parish, Avoyelles. He needs at least a narrow 51% win here. Luckily there is still a pretty strong Democratic machine here, and Riser did not fair that well here against Bryant Hammett in 2007, (but not so poorly that he lost).
Rapides! Parish - The exclaimation mark is for importance. This is easily the second largest parish in the district, only narrowly behind Ouachita. As Ouachita is for NE LA, Rapides is for Central LA, or the CENLA region; that is to say a medical hub and the site of several other major employers including a major Proctor and Gamble plant. The parish is dominated by the twin cities of Pineville and Alexandria, but also features suburban communities like Ball and Woodworth, and a small Native American reservation. Both Pineville and Alexandria have Democratic mayors. Oddly enough the smaller, nearly 70 white city Pineville, where the Baptist university Louisiana College is located, has a black Democratic mayor, while majority black Alexandria has white Jacques Roy (of Cajun descent), as mayor. Roy though has been a really good mayor whose career I had not followed until his name came up in connection with this race. He's a nationally recognized Smart Growth mayor who has done much to turn the city's stagnation around and root out corruption. He's also very young (as is Mark Johnson), and would have been my favorite candidate. To the point, winning this parish is essential, and Johnson is closer to it than Riser, and if Riser makes it to the run-off over Holloway, Johnson will have local parochial issues to exploit, which are always really potent in this state. The last time a Democrat won LA-05, Alexander in 2002, it was entirely because of the margin out of Rapides parish. Johnson has some advantages as the Catholic, "cajun" candidate of the race, as there are a lot of prominent Cajuns in Alexandria-Pineville and the southern ends of Rapides, and in Louisiana this group tends to be fairly parochial. Black turnout in the twin cities though is crucial to winning this parish, and in my uncalculated estimations, Johnson will likely need at least 53% in Rapides parish to win the district.
Avoyelles Parish - A part of Acadiana, Avoyelles is a sugar cane parish with a decent-sized black population, but what's more it always has been and remains a Democratic machine parish (also the home parish of Edwin Edwards). Landrieu won it all three times, with 52% in 2008, and it is dominated by Democrats in the legislature and on a local level. Johnson is from Marksville, which is a pretty uniquely Cajun place. Parochial voting is quite strong in the state, so it Johnson needs to maximize his home base (which also has over 3 times the population of Riser's), and pull out an impressive and hardly out of reach 58% of the vote here as a bare minimum to winning.
St. Landry Parish - This is another Cajun parish, one with a very large black population and a reliably Democratic lean. The problem is that I can't tell whether Opelousas is included in the 5th's section of it. Opelousas is a heavily Democratic, mostly black town famous for its catfish. The lines are very close and I'm pretty sure Opelousas is in the new 5th. With Opelousas in, that means Johnson is required to dominate and win 65-70 percent of this portion of the parish (because it excludes more conservative Eunice in the southwestern corner.
West and East Feliciana Parishes - Riser did pretty well in the Felicianas in 2007, but they tend to lean slightly Democratic and have decent populations of Cajun voters and black voters. Not all of East Feliciana is in this district. Johnson needs to pass up Mary Landrieu a bit, and win 55-56% in this portion of the district. Other than that I know absolutely nothing about this particular area, as we've moved so far away from my backyard and even areas I had personal connections to.
St. Helena and Tangipahoa Parishes - I'm combining two parishes I know little about again. Only the northern sections of both are in this gerrymandered 5th. I think the north Tangipahoa area includes somewhat more black voters and is more Democratic than the southern section, while St. Helena is a strongly Democratic, black majority parish itself. Unless my recollections are off, Johnson needs 60-65% in this area of the district.
Which brings us to the last major parish...
Washington Parish - I know a little more about this parish but not a great deal. It's centered around Bogalusa, a mill town. There is a heavy Catholic influence here (which might play well to Johnson's favor), but it comes primarily not from Cajun-French influence, but from the Irish Catholic workers who settled Bogalusa. There's also a pretty decent black population here (whose turnout is important). Ultra-conservative Democratic state senator Ben Nevers (who refused to switch parties and got a super Republican gerrymandered district because of this, and still managed to survive by the skin of his teeth), would be a good local figure to stump with. Landrieu received 49% of the here in 1996, and again won 49% in 2008, though that represented some slippage from 2002, as the area has trended Republican. Johnson needs to win Washington parish. Between 51-52% of the vote.
Now that all the boring stuff is out of the way, I can bring up some of the stuff I used in a comment a few days ago about the interesting way this race is developing. Democrats are piling it on Neil Riser, joined by Jay Morris in that respect. And oh have the hits been stiff; Riser could not have expected this when he and his buddies planned this neat little special election to catapault him into Congress (with little opposition was the plan). I'm not being conspiratorial either; I have family friends who are very well-connected and have heard from them that it was a set up, something newspapers in the district and other candidates have reported as well.
Here's Morris claiming Riser has benefited from an inside job, rewarded by the deeply unpopular Jindal for carrying his water in the legislature (the implication at least):
“I’ve heard that Timmy Teepell (a previous political consultant for Riser and former Jindal chief of staff), Rodney, Jonathan (Johnson, Alexander’s state director), Neil and possibly others were involved in making a deal,” Morris said. “Although I don’t have direct evidence, it appears to me some sort of deal was made to grant an advantage to (Riser). It disturbs me and should disturb everyone that an election could be manipulated like this.”David Vitter, described by one journalist as "zigging where Jindal zags" and who is preparing a gubernatorial run of his own, was tellingly the only Republican in the delegation to refuse to endorse in this race. But Vitter's comments add to a perception that is hurting Riser right out of the fast-paced starting gate:
When asked if he believed Jindal was involved, Morris said, “Timmy Teepell is Jindal’s right-hand man, and it’s the governor’s decision to hire Rodney and set the election, so yes.”
“Obviously it’s a very quick election, and it’s obvious that didn’t happen by accident,” Vitter said Thursday when asked if he thought Jindal had a hand in the timing.
The Town Talk, the Alexandria-Pineville daily had the harshest words to say about the matter:
• Republican Rep. Alexander announced his resignation a month later, on Aug. 6.The article, readable here, http://www.thetowntalk.com/... , also offers an understated but stark criticism of Alexander's generally ineffective tenure representing the district, which is rare to see since he attained a pretty high level of popularity.
• Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal announced the next day, on Aug. 7, that Alexander would become head of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, effective Sept. 30.
• Republican Neil Riser’s campaign was registered with the state on Aug 7.
For those who like to read between the lines, there is this from Jindal’s announcement: “Congressman Alexander has agreed to step down from his position in Congress and serve as secretary of the department.”
“Agreed to step down” is a diplomatic way of not saying when in Alexander’s decade in Congress the seed of this conversation was planted.
If this feels a lot like someone has stolen your vote, well, let’s just say you’re not alone.
The Advocate's early take is also pretty fascinating:
Riser also faces accusations of collusion with a governor who’s not exactly at the peak of his popularity — which he, Jindal and Alexander deny — and over the cost to taxpayers of holding a special election at all.
And if his early show of strength was designed to clear the field, it actually had the opposite effect. Thirteen candidates have signed up to run against Riser, including three state representatives (Marcus Hunter, Robert Johnson and Jay Morris), a mayor (Monroe’s Jamie Mayo), and a public service commissioner who has already served in Congress (Clyde Holloway).
Special Elections dynamics are always unpredictable and unique. At times they can lead to stunning upsets and a party winning a district it should not hold. Right now, remarkably, in LA-05 of all places, the formula is there, the scenario is there. Neil Riser manages to use institutional support and money to muscle out the other Republicans and make into the run-off, earning the absolute antipathy of many conservative activists and casual voters. Johnson has to be the Democrat to make the run-off, and then he has to run a fantastic, flawless campaign and hope for Riser's lack of charisma and an antipathetic base to give Democrats a turnout advantage, and he could win. It would certainly bring a needed rising star into a state party that desperately needs one, and while I don't think Johnson could win a regular general election even as an incumbent, winning the special and coming close to winning reelection would set him up nice for a run for Lieutenant Governor or State Treasurer in 2015, since both of those seats would be open.
In any case, this is my far too long take on the race. Hope people found it interesting. I know it lacks the meat of the really good DKE diaries, the charts and statistics that I'm just not really equipped/too lazy/uninterested, to do, but I hope this is a good qualitative basis to work with in envisioning this district and the campaign.
P.S. While Dkos does have reader gauges, these aren't entirely accurate. I always appreciate users who vote in my poll as that gives a more accurate count of readership. Which is always nice to know for something you worked hard on; sucks to feel like you are talking to a wall.