While money and name recognition will play a role in the race to succeed the only Louisiana congressman who isn’t running for reelection in November, the way the 5th Congressional district lines were drawn also will play a decisive role.
After losing a bid for governor in 2019, three-term Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, did as he said he would always do and will retire after three terms — even when President Donald Trump implored him to run again.
His departure attracted nine candidates for the state’s only wide-open congressional race on the Nov. 3 ballot.
All nine hawk the same basic dirt roads background in a district where more than half the constituents live on a farm or a small town connected to agriculture. They all talk about hard work, family and values. They all promise to work with small businesses to create jobs in a region that has known double-digit unemployment rates for generations.
Their differences are regional.
But that’s always been the case in the 10 years since a Republican legislative majority drew the lines on a 24-parish district that included Opelousas in Acadiana, Alexandria in the center part of the state, Monroe in the far northeast as well as Baton Rouge and New Orleans suburbs in the Florida Parishes all the way to Bogalusa at the toe of the boot. Their goal was to create two north Louisiana districts safe for Republican candidates. The district is 65% White and 53% Democratic but supported Trump in 2016 with 29% more votes than Hillary Clinton received.
The question really boils down to whether a Cenla Republican can gain enough momentum to knock off Monroe’s favored conservative, said Joshua Stockley, a University of Louisiana at Monroe political science professor. Voters in Acadiana, which until he moved recently included U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, of the Lafayette-based 3rd Congressional district, as well as those in the Florida Parishes, whose constituents include Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, have played secondary roles in previous elections.
Similar dynamics are in play this year with both Democratic and Republican candidates from the Monroe area squaring off against the Alexandria area.
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The two prominent Republicans from the Monroe area are Luke Letlow, Abraham’s chief of staff, and Scotty Robinson, of West Monroe, an Ouachita Parish police juror. Letlow has Abraham’s backing. Television’s “Duck Dynasty” family speaks well of Robinson.
From Alexandria hails state Rep. Lance Harris, who as House Majority leader in Edwards first term was part of a GOP triumvirate that consistently opposed Democrats and moderate Republicans. He was a powerful ally in electing Republicans for all sorts of offices, including the Louisiana Legislature.
Other Republicans include Allen Guillory Sr., a Republican from Opelousas, and Matt Hasty, a Republican from Pineville.
The Democratic candidates follow a similar geographic patterns with the two most prominent candidates, Sandra "Candy" Christophe, coming from Alexandria, and Martin Lemelle Jr., being from Ruston. The Democratic slate also includes Phillip Snowden, of Monroe, and Jesse P. Lagarde, of Amite.
Though each of the three distinct regions — Cenla, northeast and Florida Parishes — have roughly the same number of residents, the geography favors the Monroe Republican candidate.
“If you lock up Monroe and focus within a 100-mile area around Monroe, you can effectively neglect Florida Parishes, which are spread out and largely rural. It would take an incredibly intensive organized effort (to win the Florida Parishes), and it’s very rare see that level organizational capability in a congressional campaign,” Stockley said.
Monroe’s television market covers more voters in a more compact area than Alexandria’s. Commercials in both markets are far cheaper and more efficient than the big city Baton Rouge and New Orleans televisions stations, whose signals cover only a part of the 5th District, Stockley said.
This time, however, Cenla has a stronger than usual Republican candidate in Harris. But he needs to extend his support into far more hard-to-get rural parishes than what surrounds Monroe.
Roy Fletcher, a veteran political strategist from Baton Rouge, says Harris’ real goal should be to beat the Democratic candidates and win a place in the Dec. 5 runoff. “And then anything could happen,” he said.
Of the nine candidates, only six have filed with the Federal Elections Commission, whose current disclosures are through July 4. Among the Republicans are Letlow, who has raised $572,609 and had about $500,000 ready to spend; Harris, who has raised $119,786 with $117,732 on hand; and Robinson, who has $139,811 with $36,056 still in the bank. Among the Democrats are Cristophe, who raised $19,212, as well as Lemelle and Snowden, who haven’t yet reported any significant fundraising or campaign spending.
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The Republicans fall pretty much in line in their canonization of Trump and their demonization of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and call Washington, D.C., as a city filled with “radical socialists,” in Letlow’s words, who Harris contends seek only to “take your rights away.”
They’re all for gun rights and against abortion.
Harris is the son of Baptist missionaries who built in the Alexandria area a small empire of gas station/convenience stores known for its fried chicken. He says he has been a leader in the legislative process and knows how to get things done without compromising core beliefs.
Harris has been reminding voters that in June 2017, he shepherded what he calls “Blue Lives Matter” legislation that stretched Louisiana’s hate crime law further than any other state to increase penalties of attacks on police officers and firefighters.
In a swipe at Letlow, Harris uses most every break in conversation to say, “I’m not looking for another D.C. job … We need someone with a business background and real-life experience that will do what they say and are not afraid to take a stand.”
Letlow was a political operative working for a variety of GOP candidates and officials before running Abraham’s office for six years. Letlow’s go-to point is his work in the trenches work for the congressman. “I believe the journey I’ve taken has made me uniquely qualified to serve the great people across this district.”
He was involved in the intense negotiations over the 2018 Farm Bill, which outlines commodity subsidies, research grants and establishes new industries using agricultural products. Passage of the $867 billion legislation had to overcome intense opposition from both liberals and conservatives.
“He's been by my side since day one — he's been a key leader on agricultural policy,” Abraham said in a prepared statement.
"He's not Ralph Abraham," Robinson told reporters of Letlow. "I've been qualifying for this job for the past nine years as a police juror."
A real estate developer, Robinson was elected to the Ouachita Police Jury and was tapped to became its president just prior to the 2016 floods.
Campaign photos show Robinson side by side with constituents, waist deep in water, chopping down trees and filling sandbags. He touts his efforts to get local relief from the federal government.
“I’m a public servant, not a politician,” Robinson said. “While my opponents are out rubbing elbows with politicians in Washington, D.C., and Baton Rouge, I was qualified with every phone call I took from you with issues both big and small.”
On the Democratic side, Lemelle grew up in Lincoln Parish and describes himself as a fiscal conservative.
He’s an accountant by trade, who received a master’s in business administration degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
He returned to Lincoln Parish and as chief financial officer at Grambling State University worked at the right hand of President Rick Gallot, a former influential legislator. Unlike any of his opponents, Lemelle touts his training in business fundamentals and his work stabilizing the finances for a large institution.
“Balancing budgets, meeting demands and ultimately giving a return on investment. That’s my focus. I want our return on investment that is greater than it is today,” he said.
Though established in Alexandria, Christophe is quick to note that she’s native of Independence, in the Florida Parishes. She works as a clinical social worker and addiction counselor, which she says trained her to solve complex problems.
She wants to unite the country, regardless of race, culture or political party. “We’re all in this together,” Christophe said.
Christophe argues that she against terminating pregnancies except in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. She also says federal health coverage should include reproductive health care. “So many people get caught on one aspect of it, but a woman’s health care, reproductive health care is so much more” than abortions, she said.