RUSTON — Little on the surface distinguishes the two candidates vying for the last undecided race in the U.S. House of Representatives – the runoff is Saturday – in a district that stretches from Bastrop in northeast Louisiana through Bunkie, south of Alexandria, to Opelousas, north of Lafayette, over to Bogalusa in the Florida Parishes.
Both Luke Letlow and Lance Harris are Republicans who denounce abortion, stoutly defend gun rights, embrace Christianity and aren’t ready to concede that President Donald Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden. They both favor blue jeans and ostrich cowboy boots on the campaign trail.
But Letlow and Harris present clear differences in how they would carry out the job for constituents in the 5th Congressional District, which has been represented for the past six years by U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, a doctor who finished third in last year’s governor’s race and is now retiring from Congress.
Letlow, who has served as an aide to Abraham and former Gov. Bobby Jindal, touts his insider knowledge and says he is willing to work with anybody (which could include Democrats) to bring federal money to the district, which he says is the second-poorest in the country.
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“I have actually worked in Congress at a senior level,” Letlow said in an interview. “I know how to get things done, passing legislation, writing the farm bill, trying to get results from federal agencies.”
Harris, a third-term state representative from Alexandria, is a convenience-store owner who revels in his status as a partisan Republican not supported by the political establishment. He says he wants to go to Congress to take on Washington.
“Washington is the problem,” Harris said in an interview. “That’s where we have to make the change. We need outside, business-minded people in Washington.”
The two men have limited campaigning in person because of the coronavirus pandemic. When they do meet with voters, they find that most are maskless. At separate events this week, Harris didn’t wear a mask while Letlow did.
The massive 5th District – mostly rural and with the state’s smallest media markets – has long been the proverbial stepchild in Louisiana.
“We feel like we’re forgotten,” Letlow told a dozen people Wednesday night at the Florida Parishes Skeet and Conservation Association, at the group’s rustic clubhouse in the woods outside of Amite in Tangipahoa Parish.
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The district includes the soybean, cotton, corn and rice farms of northeast Louisiana, the cattle ranches and timberland of central Louisiana and the dairies of the Florida Parishes.
It is home to Grambling State University, Louisiana Tech and the University of Louisiana at Monroe and also to Lumen, a Fortune 500 company previously known as CenturyLink. Pentecostal churches dot the district, with a concentration along Interstate 20 in the north.
“It’s culturally more similar to Arkansas and Mississippi than the rest of Louisiana,” Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said of the district.
Jerry Huckaby represented the district, which then had different boundaries, from 1977 to 1993, an era when Democrats like himself could win rural areas. He said voters’ political views there are paradoxical.
“The mindset of the people in rural Louisiana is very conservative,” he said. “They don’t trust the federal government. But they say, ‘Don’t dare touch my Social Security check,’ and ‘I want better roads’ and all. I bet the district receives more in federal benefits than it pays in taxes.”
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The current district was drawn by state legislators nearly a decade ago to elect a Republican, but it has a high Black population – 35% of registered voters. The remainder are almost monolithically White and Republican. Trump won 64% of the district in the Nov. 3 presidential election, which served as the primary for the nine-candidate congressional field.
Letlow led that day with 33% of the vote. With a bigger campaign chest and deep ties throughout the district – the popular Abraham and 21 of the 24 sheriffs support him – he is favored by analysts to win Saturday.
Harris finished second in the primary with 16.5% of the vote. His tally was only 0.14% or 428 votes more than Candy Christophe, the top vote-getting Democrat.
She is neutral in the runoff.
“They are twins when it comes to political similarities and what they stand for,” said Christophe, a clinical social worker and addiction counselor in Alexandria. “I’m hearing that a lot of Democrats are so disappointed that they won’t even bother to participate in voting. They don’t feel like either one of them would be helpful with the Biden administration.”
Martin Lemelle, a Democrat who is a senior administrator at Grambling, finished fourth, and also is not endorsing either Republican.
Also staying neutral are several key Black elected officials from Monroe, including state Sen. Katrina Jackson, state Rep. Frederick Jones and state Rep. Pat Moore.
“I haven’t seen a real pitch from either side for the Democratic vote,” Jackson said.
In some ways, pollster John Couvillon said, this year’s runoff is shaping up to be similar to the one in 2013 that elected little-known Vance McAllister to the seat. McAllister defeated another Republican in a runoff that produced only a 19% turnout.
This time, both campaigns are forecasting a lowly 15% turnout, compared to the 70% turnout for the district on Nov. 3 when Trump faced off against Biden.
Analysts blame voter fatigue and the end of the high-stakes presidential contest.
“I haven’t been paying the least bit of attention to the election,” said Sara Winchester, who heard Letlow speak in Amite. “There’s way too much commotion in the news about the national election. I just tune it out. I don’t know the names of the candidates.”
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In 2013, McAllister stood out among conservatives by collecting the endorsement of Phil Robertson of the “Duck Dynasty” television series. He won over Democrats by being the rare Republican who supported expansion of Medicaid to uninsured workers, and by having Cleo Fields, then a former congressman and gubernatorial candidate, who was perhaps the state’s best-known Black politician, campaign for him.
McAllister, now an agent for NFL players, lost re-election in 2014 to Abraham after getting caught kissing an aide on a security camera.
This time, Letlow has the support of Jamie Mayo, probably the most prominent Black politician in the district. Mayo served as Monroe’s mayor for nearly two decades before losing re-election last year, and he ran twice for the congressional seat.
The district’s best-known constituent is Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who maintains a residence in Roseland in Tangipahoa Parish. Through a spokeswoman, he wouldn’t say who he is voting for.
“It probably isn’t me,” Harris said with a laugh Tuesday night in Ruston.
Harris chaired the Republican House delegation during Edwards’ first term and challenged the governor at every turn.
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At 6’3” and 260 pounds, Harris liked to loom over other Republicans when telling them they had to follow the party line on contentious votes.
His forceful style turned off some Republican legislators.
Bill Elmore, a Ruston businessman, sees it as a plus.
“We have a chance to send John Wayne to Washington,” Elmore said at Tuesday night’s meet-and-greet with Harris in Ruston. “He’s a tough guy. You won’t push him around. He’s not a yes man. If he believes in something, he’ll fight for it.”
Harris, 59, was one of the conservative Republicans known as Fiscal Hawks who sometimes worked with Edwards during Jindal’s final term to challenge Jindal’s spending practices, which left his successor – who turned out to be Edwards – with a $2 billion budget deficit.
And here’s a little known fact about Harris – he is a classically trained pianist who has a grand piano at home.
Letlow, 40, grew up on a farm in Start, east of Monroe, and boasts that he is the only candidate who drives down a dirt driveway now to get home.
“Most everybody giving money to the super PAC,” called Start the Fire, “is a lobbyist or has a job in Washington,” Harris said. “And that’s the problem.”
Gabrielle Kees, a lobbyist in Baton Rouge, said she contributed $10,000 to the super PAC because she likes Letlow’s plans to assist St. Francisville, where she grew up.
Nial Patel, another lobbyist, who gave $5,000, said he and Letlow remain close after working together for Jindal.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves’ super PAC also contributed $5,000 to Start the Fire.
"Like the clear plurality of voters, sheriffs and others, Garret has been clear of his support for Luke since day one,” Graves, who also worked for Jindal, said in a statement.