Stephanie Grace: 5th District race reveals split on health care

Well into last week’s televised 5th District congressional debate, Louisiana Public Broadcasting’s Shauna Sanford went straight to the most obvious contrast between the two contenders in Saturday’s all-Republican runoff.

Does widely endorsed, well-financed state Sen. Neil Riser, chairman of the Senate’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, accept the insider label, she asked? And does first-time politician Vance McAllister, who largely bankrolled his own effort, consider himself an outsider?

Their answers were entirely predictable. Riser shied away from his proposed label, stressing his decades in business rather than his six years in the Legislature. McAllister happily embraced his and punctuated it by noting he’d never even been to Washington, D.C.

The truth was, though, that viewers who’d tuned in from the beginning already had their answer. In response to the debate’s very first question, which focused on covering the 20 percent or so of district residents without health insurance, McAllister had said in no uncertain terms that “I think we have to expand Medicaid.”

Boom. In one moment, McAllister jumped into the super-charged, highly-partisan debate over whether Louisiana should accept federal money to expand Medicaid, a key part of the Affordable Care Act that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the overall law had deemed optional.

And he didn’t side with Gov. Bobby Jindal, who refuses to extend the program to those just over the poverty line with full federal funding for the first three years and later with a 90 percent contribution from Washington. Instead, he lined up with President Barack Obama, who just that morning had scolded Jindal over his stance during a speech in New Orleans.

Actually, McAllister had dipped a toe into the Affordable Care Act conversation before the forum (in which I also participated as a panelist). He, like Riser and just about every other Republican out there, had announced his opposition to the health care law. Rather than vowing only to repeal or defund it, he’d also embraced the idea of acknowledging it’s the law of the land and trying to fix its problems.

Outside of the political bubble, that makes perfect logical sense. Inside, those are fighting words.

Sure enough, the Riser campaign pounced. Within hours after the forum ended, his campaign issued a news release highlighting McAllister’s answer and reiterating his own campaign theme that his opponent is an unreliable enemy of “Obamacare.” Riser, just like House Republicans who are backing his candidacy, such as U.S. Reps. John Fleming and Steve Scalise, insisted he’d stand firm on the issue.

“I have consistently opposed Medicaid expansion and Obamacare, and will continue to do so,” Riser’s news release said.

It’s not clear whether McAllister didn’t get the memo or whether he simply crumpled up its pages.

There’s certainly political ground to be gained by positioning himself a bit to Riser’s left; the 5th District favored Mitt Romney over Obama 61 percent to 39 percent, but 30 percent of the voters who turned out for the primary chose a Democrat, enough to swing a runoff between two Republicans one way or the other, if they bother to turn out.

Or perhaps his position simply reflects the gut instinct of someone who has not spent his time steeping in Washington rhetoric.

Whether it’s strategic or genuine, McAllister’s willingness to veer from conservative movement orthodoxy is the race’s defining dynamic.

Riser may shy away from the insider label, but he’s clearly running as a known quantity, an eager participant in what is already a united front in the House.

It will be interesting to see if McAllister’s regular-guy, outsider approach can help him overcome all of Riser’s advantages. It will be more interesting to see whether Washington changes him if it does.

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