As Louisiana entered this season of unpredictable elections, one certainty seemed to be this: U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister, the charismatic, self-professed family man who stormed the 5th District just last fall, handily beat his party’s establishment choice and then proceeded to get caught kissing a married aide on surveillance film leaked by someone in his employ, was probably a goner.
After all, McAllister had little history with voters to cushion his fall. Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state GOP leadership, who never liked him in the first place, called on him to resign. McAllister refused but initially announced he’d skip re-election. He changed his mind, but there was still enough blood in the water to attract a whopping eight challengers. Five of them are fellow Republicans, some well-funded and managed and each with a distinct constituency. The race also includes a big-name Democrat, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, who’d backed him in last year’s runoff.
Yet as Election Day quickly approaches, it’s looking like McAllister’s once improbable re-election could happen. At this point, it may even be the likeliest scenario, on the theory that he’d beat Mayo in a runoff in the generally conservative district, and he’d also be the favorite against one of the other Republicans, given his history of attracting Democratic votes with his support for the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion. That is, if he survives the crowded, unpredictable primary in the first place.
Josh Stockley, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said a good case can be made for McAllister as frontrunner rather than flash in the pan. Factors working in his favor include the large field, with each challenger carving out a niche but none emerging as the consensus alternative; the name ID that comes with incumbency; a good bit of approachable, down-home charm and a pragmatic approach to issues that many voters may find appealing.
As for the scandal, Stockley points to the ad McAllister shot with his wife, Kelly, whom the Congressman describes as a “wonderful, Christian woman,” as going a long way toward defusing the situation. While there are plenty of whispers, he said, McAllister’s rivals are probably leery of raising the issue themselves, for fear of being perceived as overly negative. Besides, he said, “Who doesn’t know that at this point?”
And indeed, McAllister seems to have his mojo back, judging from a day on the campaign trail through the small towns and rural outposts that make up most of the district.
Here’s some of what you learn by hanging out with McAllister: He drives his Ford pickup too fast. He says what’s on his mind, or seems to, anyway. He switches effortlessly from discussing foreign aid and taxes to squirrel hunting to the Angola Rodeo, a topic of some interest at a Winnfield fabrication plant meet-and-greet hosted by a part-time rodeo clown. He’s willing to talk about his indiscretion, like when he used a question on government surveillance to crack a joke about knowing what it’s like to be filmed without realizing it, a move that effectively took the unspoken topic off the table.
Given the opportunity, he tends to lower the temperature, not raise it. Asked about Ebola, he said the CDC response fell short at first but is improving.
“Don’t get yourself all up in a panic about it. It’s not the epidemic the media tells you it is,” he told the dozen men gathered at the meet-and-greet.
When he talks of treating everyone in the district equally regardless of party or skin color, he includes sexual orientation on the list. While some of his opponents pitch themselves as strict constitutionalists, he notes that the forefathers got some big things wrong.
“Would anyone sit here and argue that slavery is right?” he asked in an interview. “Would anyone sit here and argue that women are not equal to men?” None of that means he supports a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, though. He said he considers it a states’ rights issue.
He argues that he gets more for his district by not being so predictable — an approach the newbie shares with no less sophisticated a politician than U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
On the issue that’s become something of a signature, you could argue that he sends mixed messages. His push card lists his top priority as stopping “Obamacare,” but he still strongly backs Medicaid expansion in Louisiana, which Jindal rejects, as vital to both his poor constituents and the hospitals that still provide uncompensated care. Rather than a moderate, he describes himself as a realist.
“We’re playing politics and not really sitting down at the table and saying, ‘How can we make this work?’ ” he said. “It’s a debacle, and it becomes a bigger debacle when we sit around here and go no, no, no, repeal, repeal, repeal when we know we’re not going to be able to repeal it.”