Stephanie Grace: Race draws crowded field of contenders

Louisiana’s brief experiment with party primaries for congressional elections a few years back turned out to be a bust.

They were confusing, with different rules for which voters could participate devised by Democrats, who welcomed independent voters, and Republicans, who barred them.

They were frustrating for many voters who, accustomed to the wide-open, nonpartisan elections the state had been holding for years and continued to stage for nonfederal offices, never bothered updating their registration — and in some cases, didn’t remember how they were registered in the first place.

And they were expensive. Rather than replace the two-stage primary and runoff with a primary and a general election, the Legislature decided each party primary should have its own runoff, followed by a general election between the victors. That put taxpayers on the hook for three elections instead of two.

But as unpopular as the system was, it did carry one advantage: Breaking down a race into Democrats and Republicans, at least, supplied an organizing principle.

Saturday’s 5th congressional district special election primary has no such organizing principle, and it shows.

Fourteen candidates are running to replace former U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, who announced he’d resign to join the Jindal administration in August. Yet despite the considerable size of the prize, it’s hard to get a handle on which candidates are likely to survive until the second round of voting.

The field features six sitting elected officials: Republican state Sen. Neil Riser, state Rep. Jay Morris and Public Service Commissioner Clyde Holloway; and, on the Democratic side Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, state Reps. Robert Johnson and Marcus Hunter, plus a former lawmaker, Weldon Russell; each has his own political base in one corner or another of the far-flung district. An eighth candidate, Republican businessman Vance McAllister, is running a classic outsider campaign, which is a decent enough strategy given Congress’ current poll ratings, and he has the most colorful of the endorsements issued to date: “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson. Given the off date and low turnout expected, each one could arguably land a runoff spot.

If anything is providing shape to the race, it’s Riser’s status as the establishment choice.

When Alexander announced his surprise resignation over the summer, Riser, an ally of Gov. Bobby Jindal and chairman of the state Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, was ready. He quickly filed his papers, put up a website and started announcing endorsements from his possible future colleagues (in retrospect, his advocacy for keeping the district generally intact after the 2010 Census hinted at longer standing ambitions). U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor even pitched in with his fundraising effort, which has been a huge success. According to the latest disclosure reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Riser has raised more than $560,000; Morris, his closest competitor, has less than half that total.

Riser’s strength, though, is double-edged. The timing of Alexander’s announcement, Jindal’s decision to schedule a quick election and Riser’s readiness seemed a little too neat, and rivals, commentators and bloggers quickly pounced on the idea that the fix was in.

If there was indeed a strategy to clear the field and anoint a frontrunner, it had the opposite effect. Despite the short time frame, candidates came out of the woodwork and pitched the idea that the voters, not the insiders, should get to decide.

So now it’s their turn to sort out what still seems, at this late date, to be a genuine free-for-all. Come next Sunday morning, the shape of this election will be, in hindsight, entirely obvious. But until then it’s anybody’s guess.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.