Incumbent Clay Higgins’ decision to bypass last week’s televised 3rd Congressional District debate may have reduced that hourlong event field to three men who can’t win and one who didn’t show. 

That’s what expert voices suggest: That Higgins, still popular in his third race in the 3rd District, which stretches from St. Mary Parish to the Texas line, will likely win Nov. 3 without a runoff in the multicandidate race.

That might make abundant sense, said Gabriela Vitela, who’ll teach courses on Congress next spring at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She said the odds are “incredibly high” that voters will return Higgins to Washington for a third consecutive time, despite the congressman’s remarks, which might seem brazen outside the district, or his stated political positions that might seem extreme elsewhere.

Those include his recent verbal dust-up with the Not F------ Around Coalition, an armed but lawful Black militia, whose members marched in Lafayette this month after Higgins, a former law enforcement officer, seemed to issue a challenge to the group to stay out of Lafayette in the wake of police shooting of a Black man this summer.

They also included his mocking criticism on social media of people who follow social distancing mandates to avoid COVID-19 — he refers to them as “sheeple” — and his criticism of public officials, including Gov. John Bel Edwards, who imposed mandated business shutdowns to avoid spreading the deadly virus.

Vitela said by declining to debate last week in what seems to be a safe Republican district, Higgins, who has declined news media interviews of late, prevented giving his opponents a chance to “pick at” him. To win the district, she said, it might feel “unnecessary” for Higgins to share a stage with lesser-known candidates. He remains pro-energy, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-military and pro-President Donald Trump in a district that embraces those positions.

Conversely, from a citizen’s perspective, she said, it might cause viewers of last week's event, which was shown on KATC, to question why Higgins wasn’t there. She said voters oftentimes appreciate transparency.

What questions might Higgins have faced if he showed up at Thursday’s debate?

Braylon Harris, D-Lake Charles, said he’d have asked Higgins who would make a better representative to lead the recovery from COVID-19 and two hurricanes in the 3rd District: A sitting congressman who is long on rhetoric, short on action or a person like himself who has been “on the ground” working in the district for years.

Rob Anderson, D-Lake Charles, who was among the field in the 2018 race, said he’d simply ask why the congressman, whose office is in the same block where the debate was conducted, “is not here tonight?”

Here are other questions, based on the congressman’s performance, promise and status as a prospective third-term congressman:

How effective can a Republican congressman be in a House of Representatives ruled by Democrats?

Most polls suggest Democrats have a more than 90% chance of retaining control of the House in a time of deep partisan divide. That might leave Republicans like Higgins, who had notable successes in the GOP-controlled House during his first term, on the outside of congressional influence.

“If there is not a material benefit to having a Republican congressman, he could (still) be important if you want to be part of the process,” Vitela said. “He’s not going to get huge wins as a Republican in Congress, but he can nibble at the margins and bring home a few of the benefits of office.”

Of great importance, too, she added, is that the congressional member can “bring attention to issues that are important to the district” and can claim to “rein in the Democrats” by fighting back against their initiatives.

She said that as an outspoken Republican advocate, Higgins might later say he “made sure that those socialist Democrats didn’t go too far.”

Would Higgins again thrust himself in front of local issues, such as those that led to the appearance here by the Black militia NFAC?

The issue surfaced when a Houston man suggested that he would bring the NFAC, an armed militia that has marched at several sites where racial issues occurred, to Lafayette after the police-involved shooting of Trayford Pellerin, an armed Black man from Lafayette. Higgins, himself a former law enforcement officer, responded with a social media post that warned the Black militia to not come to Lafayette.

In a social media post, Higgins suggested to the group he would “drop any 10 of you where you stand,” a remark that seemed to take the coalition leader, John Jay Fitzgerald Johnson, by surprise. He said Lafayette was not on the group’s radar, but he vowed to march in Lafayette because of Higgins’ post, and did on Oct. 3. The Advocate called local law enforcement agencies to determine the public cost of accommodating that event, which was unavailable.

Has Higgins changed his outlook on COVID-19?

The congressman’s reelection materials picture him alongside Trump. His statements have mirrored much of what the president has said about COVID-19, sometimes mocking its health impacts.

But Trump himself fell victim to COVID-19, the president confirmed Oct. 5. His infection followed what Dr. Anthony Fauci called a “superspreader event,” Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Has the congressman modified his position on the virus? His Oct. 7 social media message suggests no, that he continued to believe that Gov. John Bel Edwards, who sets and enforces social distance mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, held “oppressive tendencies.” Higgins said he was aware of “secret meetings to threaten and oppress individuals who would dare stand for personal freedoms in Louisiana.”

What happened to the Jerod C. Prunty case, and what did Higgins learn from it?

Prunty, who worked on Higgins’ staff and identified himself as director of district operations for the congressman, was arrested in February 2019 on two counts of pandering. The arrest followed an investigation of more than a year and followed arrests of eight others on charges related to human sex trafficking, pandering and prostitution at five Lafayette Parish massage parlors. The previous year, Higgins had co-sponsored legislation to protect victims of sex trafficking.

Prunty’s address at his arrest was listed the same as that of Pingjuan Xia, who was also arrested for pandering and prostitution. Prunty was a former St. Martin Parish law enforcement officer.

Lafayette’s city court said the case was no longer in municipal court; it was not listed in the state court. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not return a call inquiring if it had moved to federal court. A spokesperson for the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, which made the arrest, did not return calls.

Even if Higgins declines to answer such questions about his record, he may find reelection relatively easy. He has polished off better-known and seemingly more substantial political opposition in his first two races than those who will be on the ballot against him Nov. 3.

Vanquished political opposition in 2016 included Scott Angelle, who’d run a vigorous race for governor in 2015; Lt. Col. Greg Ellison, R-Lafayette, who held important military planning positions in the Army; and Grover Joseph Rees, a former U.S. ambassador who’d spent much of his career in foreign service positions.

In 2018, Higgins defeated without a runoff a field that include Mildred "Mimi" Methvin, a longtime federal magistrate and former state district judge; and Josh Guillory, who won election as Lafayette mayor-president in 2019. None of those on Thursday night’s debate stage at the Acadiana Center for the Arts hold credentials similar to those former Higgins opponents.

Higgins said he would appear for a debate if he does not win election outright Nov. 3. To fall into a runoff, though, Higgins would have to carry less than half of the votes in the district.

On Thursday night, Higgins’ opponents leveled criticisms against the two-term congressman for his tweets — “pouring gasoline on a fire,” “appealing to a vile base” and “look beyond the rhetoric.”

Harris said he attended the NFAC rally and suggested that Higgins got Lafayette officers into a potentially volatile situation, then didn’t show up himself.

Even if Higgins, as a Republican, would not be well positioned in a House that is run by Democrats, a third term would enable him to qualify for congressional retirement programs. That would be important for a lawmaker who has slept in his office to save money and who has playfully suggested he and his fourth wife, Becca, are “thousandaires,” average people who have worked their way out of personal debt.

Vitela said Higgins probably has little to worry about. Higgins doesn’t fear losing to this field, she said, and “is not afraid of a runoff.”


Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.