Public Service Commission Chairman Scott Angelle was supposed to walk away with the race for Acadiana’s 3rd Congressional District seat.
But the anti-establishment mood of the electorate has given political newcomer Clay Higgins a real shot at winning Saturday’s election to replace U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who left to unsuccessfully run for the U.S. Senate.
Both Republican campaigns have released polls that show their candidate on top, but the surveys are within a margin of error that also could give the nod to other fellow.
In the Nov. 8 primary, Angelle, a political fixture in Louisiana for the past 30 years, led the 10-candidate field with 91,374 ballots or 29 percent of the vote – less than the 30-40 percent margin that was expected of him.
Higgins, an internet sensation but political novice, was right behind with 84,809 votes or about 26 percent of the total cast in the primary.
The runoff contest has been mean by any definition.
Super PACs, which are legally forbidden from coordinating with the candidates they support, have flooded media markets with personal attacks on their opponents.
Voters have learned about Higgins’ problems with child support, former wives and former employers – allegations he calls exaggerated and taken out of context – from a Super PAC favoring Angelle.
One of congressional candidate Clay Higgins’ former wives has filed a lawsuit seeking almost…
Acadiana television viewers are hearing that Angelle didn’t support President-elect Donald Trump, gave contracts to family members and sits on the board of a company the PSC regulates – all of which Angelle calls lies – courtesy of a Super PAC headed by U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s former chief of staff.
The larger dynamic in the race, however, may be the “throw the bums out” mood of the electorate, said John M. Couvillon, of JMC Analytics and Polling in Baton Rouge. Angelle’s résumé of public service from police juror to state agency head to interim lieutenant governor to chairman of the utility regulating board may actually work against him.
With an economy based on rice and sugar cane farming augmented by worker bees extracting oil and natural gas, southwest Louisiana has a strong working class tone in terms of politics, said Couvillon, who worked on the successful campaign to elect Republican Mike Francis to a Public Service Commission seat that overlaps much of the congressional district.
“A generation ago they would have supported Edwin Edwards and John Breaux. Now they’re voting conservative Republican,” Couvillon said.
Buffeted by layoffs in the energy industry because of low prices, voters are in an anti-incumbent mood. “I see the race between outsider Clay Higgins and establishment candidate Scott Angelle,” he said.
Angelle’s campaign disagrees.
“Scott is an outsider, willing to fight the Washington establishment," said Ryan Cross, Angelle's spokesman. "But people also want someone who can get results. They’re looking for someone with the character and the experience to get results.”
The campaign’s internal polls show that while the vote is close, Angelle leads by double digits in the two segments of the population mostly likely to actually go vote: women and seniors.
Mathematically, a candidate can win the 10-parish 3rd District, which stretches along the coast from the Atchafalaya Swamp to the Sabine River, by polling strong in the urban centers of Lafayette and Lake Charles, Couvillon said.
Higgins is strongest in the rural parishes. If the turnout is high in those parishes and Higgins can cut into Angelle’s dominance in Lafayette and Lake Charles, he’ll win, Couvillon said.
Higgins' campaign manager, Chris Comeaux, said Higgins is sending direct mail flyers to Lake Charles that should start arriving to voters there on Monday.
The Secretary of State’s office is projecting that only 35 percent of registered voters will vote in the runoff, compared to the 67.8 percent turnout on Nov. 8.
“The winner will be the one who can get their voters to the polls Saturday,” said Donald Hains, who managed the campaign of Republican congressional candidate Gus Rantz, a Lafayette businessman making his first foray into politics.
Angelle has deep political roots in Acadiana, a sophisticated team and a group of supporters who turn out for near every election, Hains said.
Higgins benefited from voters who have a history of only voting occasionally, but made the trek Nov. 8 to vent their anger at the establishment by voting for both Trump and Higgins. Political pros can’t predict how traditionally low-participation voters will act now that Trump is not on the ballot, he said.
“The big question is whether these voters are one and done, in which case Scott wins, or are they motivated enough to come out again, in which case Clay Higgins has the advantage,” Hains said.
Clay Higgins, aka “the Cajun John Wayne,” on Wednesday delivered with messianic zeal the new…
A U.S. Army veteran from New Orleans, who was brought up in St. Tammany Parish, Higgins sold cars in Baton Rouge and Texas before embarking on a career in law enforcement.
Part of his duties with the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office included “Crime Stoppers,” a usually dull segment run on local television news asking for members of the public help to solve cases. Higgins’ take was a little different in that he called out suspects by name and threatened violence if they didn’t turn themselves in. His segments were watched by hundreds of thousands of viewers on You Tube.
But he left that job after St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz asked Higgins to tone it down. His personal life has been the subject of numerous commercials run by Super PAC supporting Angelle.
Higgins, who admits to a checkered past, says he straightened out his life after becoming a born-again Christian. Nevertheless, he also says, that says the incidents are taken out of context and spun into "vicious lies" by the former Jindal aides now surrounding Angelle.
Comeaux, Higgins’ campaign manager, said Higgins supporters are working class folk who have been divorced, understand the complexities of child support, and struggled to pay the bills. The attacks have only served to underline that Higgins is one of them and, for lagniappe, to remind them to that another election is in the offing, he said.
Angelle’s weakness is more than Higgins’ ability to tap into an atmosphere that new blood is needed in Washington, Comeaux said. At least part of Higgins’ support is coming from Republicans angry at Angelle for not endorsing U.S. Sen. David Vitter in the 2015 gubernatorial runoff.
In his run for governor, Angelle moved from little-known politician to third place – challenging Vitter, the presumptive favorite.
Vitter had been hammered in Super PAC commercials and blog news sites about his cell phone number being found in high-end Washington, D.C. prostitution ring. In the final debate before voters headed to polls, Angelle launched the most pointed attack: “We have a stench that is getting ready to come over Louisiana, if we elect David Vitter as governor.”
The state Republican Party considered, but rejected, an effort to censure Angelle for not endorsing Vitter.
The Louisiana Republican Party's governing committee overwhelmingly rejected an attempt Satu…
A Super PAC called Make Louisiana Great Again and headed by Kyle Ruckert, Vitter’s former chief of staff, spent $152,067 on Dec. 1 to run commercials slamming Angelle.
“It's crooked Washington politicians trying to help another crooked politician. People with a very distinguished track record of lying ... and I won’t let these lies stand,” Angelle said in a statement Saturday.
Angelle said he voted for Donald Trump in the primary election, but noted Higgins could not because he didn’t register as Republican until seven months ago.
Angelle also said the PSC does not regulate the pipelines owned by the company on whose board he sits. He said he requested the Ethics Board to clear a St. Martin Parish project, which he had nothing to do with, before hiring an architectural firm in which his sister-in-law held an 8 percent interest.