A Tea Party-backed candidate loses to an anti-establishment outsider who supports Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion?
Welcome to the befuddled nature of the 2014 campaign.
Louisiana State Senator Neil Riser was heavily favored going into yesterday’s runoff election with political novice, businessman Vance McAllister. Riser picked up nearly twice the number of votes in the non-partisan primary in October than McAllister and had the backing of establishment politicians at the state and federal level. He also won the endorsement of the Louisiana Tea Party and Freedom Works, the Washington-based advocacy group closely associated with the Tea Party.
But McAllister, who spent $800,000 of his own money, had a secret weapon; Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson endorsed him. The hit reality TV show is shot in the district and the support of the quirky Robertson family made voters feel comfortable about voting for him, according to some analysts.
McAllister made it a point to mention that he had never visited Washington, D.C. That kind of “outsider” image should work very well for candidates from both parties challenging incumbents.
“Plain and simple, this was Riser’s election to lose. Riser was the favorite going into the evening. He had the dollars. He had the endorsement of the Republican establishment. He had a strong showing in the primary. Yet, he lost it,” said Joshua Stockley, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
Riser and McAllister are both conservatives and largely agreed on many issues. Both oppose abortion, favor strong gun rights and criticize the levels of federal spending and debt.
Their sharpest distinction rested with President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
Both opposed the health overhaul, but Riser wanted only repeal, saying the law will harm businesses and families and can’t be fixed.
McAllister said repeal had no chance with Democrats leading the Senate and White House, so he said Congress should work to improve the law. He also wants Louisiana to expand its Medicaid program to give insurance to the working poor, an expansion that Riser opposes.
The positions put McAllister at odds with some tea party supporters but generated support from Democrats who had no candidate of their own in the runoff.
Stockley said voters in the very strongly conservative 5th District “signaled that McAllister’s pragmatism seems to be a more tenable governing solution.”
McAllister will represent a largely rural district along the Mississippi River delta dotted with farmland and plagued by poverty. The 5th District covers all or part of 24 parishes, from northeast and central Louisiana into southeastern parishes bordering Mississippi.
The congressional seat was vacant because Republican Rodney Alexander decided to leave Washington in the middle of his sixth term and take a job in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. In the race to succeed him, Alexander was supporting Riser, an ally of Jindal.
Best known for a constitutional provision toughening Louisiana gun rights, Riser announced his campaign immediately after Alexander announced his departure, raising accusations that Jindal and Alexander tried to influence the election for Riser. All three denied the claim.
“Riser got punished for being too closely allied to Gov. Jindal,” Stockley said.
The biggest loser in the race might be House Majority Leader Eric Cantor who endorsed Riser prior to the primary in October. Cantor’s “Eric-Pac” gave Riser $5,000 and his endorsement led the way for Hill Republicans — including most of the Republican Louisiana delegation — to line up in support of Riser.
There’s only one lesson to take away from this contest; anyone with the taint of Washington — or the establishment — on them is going to have to run like hell to overcome this liability. I don’t necessarily see McAllister’s “pragmatism” on Obamacare as much of a factor. It was a political gamble taken in order to attract moderate Democratic voters — and it worked. Despite the toxicity of Obamacare, this was one district where it probably helped more than it hurt to support Medicaid expansion.
But few would recommend other Republican underdogs using the same strategy. Obamacare is the one-ton rock that is likely to sink Democrats next year and any small concessions to it will likely draw a nuclear response from other Republicans.
Among the 39 Democrats who defected on Friday and voted with the GOP to delay a key health-care provision was Rep. Bruce Braley (Iowa), a reliably liberal vote for much of Obama’s agenda in his first term. Braley is the consensus Democratic nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) — a seat that Democrats have held for 33 of the past 39 years. Braley represents a district that the president won by 14 percentage points in 2012 and he wants to represent a state Obama won twice but, as evidenced by his vote Friday, Braley has begun to put some political distance between himself and the president.
The reaction among some Iowans shows the peril ahead. Jerry Crawford, a longtime Democratic activist, defended Braley’s vote as one that fit with what Iowans want in politicians: problem-solvers who keep their word.
But his vote upset Sue Dvorsky, a former special-education teacher and state Democratic Party chairman. She thinks that bills like the one Braley supported give Republicans more momentum to criticize the health-care law. “Democrats — elected officials and activists — need to buckle down and take a breath,” she said Saturday.
In Iowa, the disappointment in Obama and the health-care law’s rollout is deeper and more personally felt than in much of the rest of the country. That’s because, nearly six years ago, Iowans propelled Obama’s national career with his upset victory in the January 2008 presidential primary caucuses, setting the stage for beating Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
“It’s terrible, it’s painful to watch. We really do know him,” Dvorsky said. “Watching this is gut-wrenchingly painful.”
Dvorsky’s advice to her fellow Democrats — that they should grit their teeth and ride out the storm — is useless. It’s wishful thinking to believe that politicians who are in as much trouble as congressional Democrats won’t thrash about looking to keep their heads above water until the situation changes.
No doubt over the next year, there will be ebbs and flows as the website improves its functionality, and the subsidies start to flow, which will almost certainly be followed by other nasty surprises, like millions of more cancellations, that will once again put Democrats in jeopardy. The safe play is to get as far away from Obamacare as possible.
If Obamacare is still a big issue on election day, there will be nothing to protect Democratic incumbents from the wrath of the voters.