Louisiana’s looming gubernatorial race came into sharper focus this week when Attorney Jeff Landry said he would not be a candidate in 2019, but instead run for reelection to his current job. Yet the bigger news came not from Baton Rouge but Washington — even though it hardly seemed like news at all.
U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, currently the third-ranking Republican in the House and soon to become the second, said he’s staying in Congress, passing up a chance to come back home and move into the Governor’s Mansion.
This is what Scalise has been insisting he’d do all along, which is the “hardly news” part. But his prior comments to this effect came before his party took a shellacking at the hands of voters, not only losing the all-important majority but losing it big.
Before, there was a good chance that Paul Ryan’s retirement would leave Scalise as the majority leader, and a not-at-all remote possibility that he might become speaker.
The sixth episode of the New Orleans Advocate's weekly podcast, "The Neutral Ground," is available for download.
And before, some well-placed Louisiana Republicans figured he might change his tune should the GOP lose power. They figured that the gregarious congressman from Jefferson Parish, whose near-fatal gunshot injury and stirring recovery drew tons of goodwill, might not want to stick around as part of the majority. They also pegged him as the biggest threat to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ hopes of landing a second term.
With both Scalise and Landry out, the best-known challenger is likely to be U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, who will make his decision public by Dec. 1 but is definitely acting like a candidate already.
And Scalise is acting very much like someone who plans a long career in Washington, regardless of last week’s electoral setback.
Unlike many other Republicans who struggled to hold on in suburban districts, he has no worries at home. Scalise was re-elected with 71 percent of the 1st Congressional District vote, putting him light years ahead of second place finisher Tammy Savoie, a Democrat and military veteran who is precisely the sort of candidate who found success elsewhere.
Chalk that up to a couple of things. One is that Louisiana isn’t Pennsylvania or Virginia or some other place where suburban voters are put off by President Donald Trump. Scalise loudly defended Trump and pointedly refused to condemn his divisive rhetoric even as he was lecturing others on civility, yet paid no price.
Another is that his highly conservative district adjoins the 2nd Congressional district centered around Democratic stronghold New Orleans and represented by U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who took 81 percent of the vote there last week. Both are safe seats by design, not just because even a weakened Voting Rights Act demands it but because it’s in both sides’ interest. Voters may chafe at noncompetitive elections, but politicians think they’re great, so don’t look for this to change any time soon.
Still, having a representative who actually wants to stick around isn’t something 1st District Voters can take for granted. Scalise’s predecessor was Bobby Jindal, a short-timer who moved to Kenner after he lost his first gubernatorial race to Kathleen Blanco and ran for Congress even as he was planning his next gubernatorial run. Before Jindal, David Vitter held the seat for five years, until he had a chance to move up to the U.S. Senate.
Before them, there was Bob Livingston, who was chosen by his colleagues to be speaker back in 1999 but never actually took the job. Instead, he resigned on the day of the Bill Clinton impeachment amid reports that he too had strayed.
Scalise, a longtime state lawmaker, eyed the seat as far back at Livingston’s departure. He waited his turn, got to Washington in 2008, and made up for lost time by rising quickly to a leadership post.
Now, he appears dug in, willing to serve in the minority for now and see if the winds shift back in the GOP’s favor. This is what’s known as playing the long game.
Email Stephanie Grace at email@example.com.