Bleeding the Fifth

Two weeks ago, Rodney Alexander surprised everyone when he abruptly resigned from the United States Congress. Well, almost everyone. In announcing his resignation, Alexander claimed that he was frustrated by gridlock, implying that Congress’s ban on earmarks (which was first and most vocally supported by his fellow Republicans) made it practically impossible for him to secure funding for projects back home. And at first, the national political media seemed to take him for his word. Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post, for example, suggested that Alexander’s reasons for retiring may presage a larger trend of lawmakers leaving Congress because of frustrations over ineffectiveness.

But that, as it turns out, was just a smokescreen. Alexander, after all, was Louisiana’s most senior member of Congress; he was a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, and he was in no jeopardy of losing his incumbency to a challenger. At 66, Alexander could have easily served another five terms, all the while steadily increasing his seniority and influence.

It’d be easy enough if Alexander simply said he was resigning from public life, but less than 24 hours after he announced his resignation from Congress, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announced that Alexander would become his next Secretary of Veteran Affairs, a position that may pay less than Congress but provides Alexander with an exponentially larger state pension plan than he would have otherwise received. And before Alexander’s new job had even been announced, State Senator Neil Riser launched his campaign website and began actively seeking donations.

Tellingly, in announcing Rodney Alexander’s appointment, Governor Bobby Jindal said (bold mine), “Rodney has graciously agreed to step down from his seat in Congress in order to serve, and I know that he will do an incredible job as Secretary of Veterans Affairs.” As both The Town Talk and LSU Professor Bob Mann have noted, Jindal, perhaps unwittingly, revealed that Congressman Alexander’s resignation was likely an agreement that he struck with the Governor’s office.

It may seem Machiavellian and even a little conspiratorial, but it’s actually pretty straightforward (and this is Louisiana, after all). Despite his seniority and despite his incumbency, Rodney Alexander wasn’t going to run for re-election in 2014, and Republican insiders knew this. They also knew: If Alexander finished out his term, his replacement would be on the same ballot as incumbent US Senator Mary Landrieu. And although Landrieu’s elections have always been close, she maintains a formidable get-out-the-vote operation and robust support (even among Republicans) in the fifth Congressional district, something that would have obviously benefitted a down-ticket Democratic Congressional candidate.

That’s the fix. And it seems to have been overlooked by many in the media. Rodney Alexander didn’t resign from Congress because he had finally been offered his dream job. He agreed to leave early, to forgo the remainder of his term, in exchange for a cushy job in the Jindal cabinet and an even better pension plan, and with the hope that a Republican could hold onto the seat and run for re-election on the same ticket as Senator Landrieu.

I’ve read some Republicans suggest that, even if Alexander and Jindal did, in fact, collude to “rig” this election, they should not be faulted, as if their purely political exploitation of the democratic process is somehow sophisticated. And we should be clear: While everything about this may be completely legal (Alexander suddenly retiring, Jindal immediately hiring him, and State Senator Neil Riser launching his campaign, all within the span of hours), it’s still manifestly corrupt and unethical. It doesn’t pass “the smell test,” as they say.

And less than three months after slashing out $4 million in approved funding for the developmentally disabled, Governor Jindal’s and Rodney Alexander’s electoral charade is expected to cost taxpayers at least $1.2 million, $1.2 million to avoid having Mary Landrieu on the same ballot as a non-incumbent Republican Congressional candidate.

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All of that said, Democrats could have taken back this seat from the Republicans. It wasn’t necessarily fait accompli for Jindal, Alexander, and Riser (and it still may not be for Riser).

In fairness to the Louisiana Democratic Party leadership, they immediately recognized that this could be a pick-up opportunity for Democrats. After all, more than 35% of the district are minorities, the highest of any Republican-held district in the entire country, and the data conclusively shows that minority voters in the district overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates. The problem is: There hasn’t been a competitive Democrat in the district since, well, Rodney Alexander in 2002, before he switched parties.

At the risk of writing a post-mortem before a single vote has even been cast (and as much as I hope to be proven wrong), I think it’s safe to assume that a Republican candidate will win this seat, though it may not be Neil Riser.

Here’s why:

Only hours after The News Star broke the news of Rodney Alexander’s retirement, well before Louisiana Democrats had the chance to discuss a strategy, a relatively unknown State Representative named Marcus Hunter announced, via Twitter, that he was going to run for the seat. Hunter had only won his last election by three votes, and his announcement on Twitter seemed particularly impulsive, if not downright bizarre.

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When Marcus Hunter declared his candidacy on Twitter, it became immediately obvious: Democrats were not going to be able to “clear the field” for a single, consensus candidate. But even more importantly, Hunter’s announcement made it all the more unlikely that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (the DCCC) and other national progressive and Democratic PACs would be willing to invest their resources in a Congressional election in Louisiana only two months away.

Neil Riser already had nearly $100K in the bank, and he claimed that he was aiming to raise over $1M for his campaign. If Riser does, in fact, raise over $1M- even if he raises over $350K- it’s not because of the beneficence of his friends and family members; it’s because of Bobby Jindal’s and Rodney Alexander’s connections to national Republican donors, lobbyists, and PACs.

As much as I want to admire Mr. Hunter’s willingness to put himself out there as a candidate, I find it difficult to overlook the cavalier and impulsive way in which he announced his candidacy; Congress is serious, and for several days, it was hard to know whether Hunter was serious as well.

But Mr. Hunter doesn’t really deserve all of the blame, and I have reason to believe that if a strong, consensus candidate had announced, Hunter would have stepped aside for the benefit of the party. (I just wish he had never entered the race in the first place. It made things way too confusing, way too early, at an absolutely critical juncture).

In my estimation, as a lifelong resident of the district, there were only two potential candidates who could have cobbled together the coalition needed to win: State Senator Rick Gallot and Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy. But knowing what I know about both men (and having worked for Mayor Roy for years), I also knew that neither of them would enter the race without first doing their homework (which meant conducting a poll), and they would never run against one another.

In cold, hard political terms: If a Democrat is to recapture the Fifth Congressional district, he or she must be able to attract 90% of the African-American vote and at least 35% of the white vote. Although more than 35% of the district are minorities, whites typically represent around 70-75% of the vote, and there’s reason to believe that percentage could be higher in a hastily-called special election during an off-cycle.

In other words, a successful Democrat would need to appeal to African-Americans and a sizable percentage of white voters, and the only possible way a Democrat could make a run-off in a field dominated by Republicans is if the field was clear. Democrats can’t afford to be fragmented.

Despite Hunter’s premature announcement, the Democratic Party decided to conduct a poll, which would have, hypothetically, allowed potential candidates to more thoroughly understand their own chances and provided everyone with the opportunity to coordinate and unify behind a single candidate. This would have also made it easier to attract the same type of funding on which Riser’s campaign relies, and potentially, it would have raised the national profile of the election.

But before the results of the poll came back, State Representative Robert Johnson, a Democrat from Marksville, who had never previously indicated that he was even considering a run for Congress, announced that he was a candidate. Johnson told the media, truthfully, that he didn’t know whether he had the support of the Democratic Party.  In announcing his candidacy to the media, Mr. Johnson didn’t say anything about rural development or health care or job creation or education; instead, he emphasized his social conservative bona fides: His support of gun rights, his opposition to abortion, and his belief in “traditional” family values. And while these hot-button issues may poll above the margins in Central and Northeastern Louisiana, Mr. Johnson’s campaign is almost completely indistinguishable from all of the Republicans already in the race, and to me, the first and most important test for the United States Congress is one’s ability to build a working, loyal, and functional coalition.

The poll was an exercise in futility, and regardless of what it showed, it was now useless to Rick Gallot and Jacques Roy. Both men quickly and understandably decided not to enter the race.

Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, whose name, unlike Robert Johnson’s, had always been on the shortlist of potential Democratic candidates decided to take the plunge, however. And just so I’m clear: I support Mayor Mayo; I will vote for Mayor Mayo; I think Mayor Mayo is best candidate in the entire field, by far, and I also have no doubt that Mayor Mayo will lose.

It’s not because of who he is; it’s because of where he is. Mayor Mayo’s base in Ouachita Parish is already crowded with well-financed Republican candidates, which means he will be hard-pressed to carry a majority of voters in his own parish. And despite the fact that he’s the Mayor of Monroe, he’s not particularly well-known outside of his region, and it will be challenging for him to make up the losses in Northeast Louisiana with gains, particularly among white Democrats, in Central Louisiana, Cajun Country, and Tangipahoa. Again, I hope I will be proven wrong, and to back that up, I plan on donating to his campaign.

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Don’t get me wrong, though: As much as I wanted either Jacques Roy or Rick Gallot to enter this election, I think both men made the only sensible decision, and regardless of how the State Democratic Party is shaping up, it’s also worth remembering and emphasizing; REPUBLICANS ARE ACTUALLY MUCH MORE DYSFUNCTIONAL.

Neil Riser may be a Jindal prop who is best known for spending thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles away in order to kill a beautiful, majestic 31-year-old (hey, my age) polar bear, which his family then taxidermied. But that’s not the problem with Riser:  Riser was a co-sponsor of the internationally and nationally ridiculed Louisiana Science Education Act, which allows science teachers the ability to undermine legitimate scientific scholarship with unscientific and untested shams.

The problem is, ladies and gentlemen:

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Or, in more easy-to read terms: The district is currently 44% Republican to 26% Democratic.

This poll, by the way, didn’t include current Public Service Commissioner and former United States Congressman Clyde Holloway, a Republican, which would likely take votes away from a small portion of Johnson’s supporters in Avoyelles and Rapdies. It’s hard to know what Clyde Holloway is doing in this race, particularly after his own wife publicly admonished him not to run.

But paradoxically, the more money behind more Republicans, the less opportunity for a cross-over Democrat.

Either way, on both sides, we are bleeding the fifth.

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Update: Rodney Alexander tells the editorial board of The News Star that he won’t be buying back into the state retirement plan, because it’d cost him more than he’d get out, a claim that seems absolutely ridiculous.