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Luke Letlow (left), a Republican candidate for the 5th Congressional seat, speaks with Luciele Bellavia during a meet and greet at the Florida Parishes Skeet and Conservation Association in Amite, La., on Wednesday, December 2, 2020.

The election to replace Luke Letlow, who died from COVID-19 complications days before being sworn in as congressman for Louisiana’s 5th District, will be set for March 20th with an April runoff if needed.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office confirmed Wednesday he will call a special election to fill the seat, which is being vacated by retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham. Letlow, also a Republican, served as chief of staff to Abraham and beat out state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, in a runoff earlier this month to replace Abraham on a 62% to 38% vote.

Letlow was admitted to a Monroe hospital with COVID-19 symptoms on Dec. 19th shortly after being diagnosed, before being transferred to the intensive care unit at Ochsner-LSU Health Shreveport. He died after suffering a “cardiac event” Tuesday evening, said Dr. G.E. Ghali, who oversaw the team treating Letlow.

Qualifying, when candidates must officially declare themselves a candidate for the race to appear on the ballot, will take place Jan. 20th-22nd, said Tyler Brey, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin.

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The March election will likely also feature the race to replace U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, who is leaving for a senior post in President-elect Joe Biden’s White House. Edwards has not yet called that election but will do so after Richmond submits his resignation. The March 20th date will be the primaries for the two congressional races, when all candidates regardless of party appear on the same ballot, called a jungle primary. The top two-vote getters for each race will advance to an April runoff if no candidate in each race wins more than 50% of the vote.

“That’s what the internal assumption is, to run them both at the same time to save money and have it be easier for everybody,” Brey said.

Harris, a state representative from Alexandria who advanced to the runoff with Letlow before losing, said in a text message it would be “inappropriate” to discuss whether he intends to run again.

“It’s time for our state to mourn this loss,” he said. “It’s time to pray for his wife and his two young children. It’s not a time for politics.”

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Letlow’s death, which made him the first sitting or incoming member of Congress to succumb to COVID-19, reverberated around Louisiana and the nation, with politicians of all stripes expressing condolences to his family.

The incoming congressman who had no known underlying conditions and turned 41 earlier this month, appeared at some campaign events without a mask on, but didn’t campaign heavily on the issue of COVID-19 restrictions and was photographed wearing a mask when indoors on multiple occasions.

In a November debate with Harris, Letlow said, “We’ve got to make sure our people are protected,” but also said the state needed to open up its economy, saying other nations have done so “safely.”

“Again we’ve got to make sure our economy is open, but I too have lost people that I love that have died from this disease and we’ve got to also be empathetic to those who for one reason or another can’t go to work,” Letlow said.

His position on balancing the health risks of the pandemic that has killed more than 7,000 Louisiana residents with the economic toll is not outside the mainstream; a host of elected officials took similar stances.

Letlow also said in the debate he wanted to focus on bringing federal research dollars back home to study COVID-19.

U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, speaking on Fox news Wednesday, called Letlow’s death “devastating.” Scalise had in recent weeks lobbied for state lawmakers to change Louisiana’s election dates to prevent incoming members of Congress like Letlow from missing orientation and jockeying for committee assignments.

“I’ve been talking to Luke the last few days,” Scalise said. “He’s been fighting, battling in the hospital, and it was taking a turn for the worse right before Christmas, it was going up and down. It’s just heartbreaking. Luke was a young guy, 41 years old, in great health, and looking forward to a bright future.”

Staff writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this report. 

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