Stephanie Grace: McAllister seems more expendable than Vitter

The last time I spoke with Vance McAllister, he was still marveling over how long his honeymoon had lasted.

It was late February, and the brand-new congressman, the blunt-spoken, self-made, “Duck Dynasty”-approved Mr. Smith who’d never been to Washington before winning November’s special election, the self-described redneck and family values Christian, the GOP rebel who’d dared to take on the establishment candidate, buck party orthodoxy by calling for the state to accept federal money to expand Medicaid and still win by 20 points, was on a roll.

Democrats greeted his arrival with delight and lauded him for his willingness to consider their point of view, and Republicans seemed to accept he’d be around for a while and vote mainly with them.

During Washington Mardi Gras, he’d won over the home state crowd at an economic development lunch when he announced his take on the weekend’s lavish spectacle. “Holy crap!” he exclaimed, to peals of laughter.

His guest at his first State of the Union, reality show star Willie Robertson, caused a huge splash, which meant the congressman caused a huge splash by bringing him. McAllister happily recounted a subsequent appearance by Robertson on the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show, in which Robertson talked about his big night on the Hill.

Robertson: “Jimmy, it’s just like your buddy going to Congress.”

Kimmel: “That would never happen to one of my buddies.”

Robertson: “I would have said the same thing! ... We’re literally high-fiving in the back of it, like, can you believe that we’re here?”

How terribly ironic that McAllister’s extended honeymoon came to a crashing end this week with a stolen smooch, not with his wife but with a staffer, recorded in his district office in December and surreptitiously leaked to the Ouachita Citizen newspaper months later. How dizzying it must be to go from being the dragon-slaying “Duck Dynasty” guy to the “kissing congressman” in zero to 60, from reveling in all the attention to desperately dodging it.

McAllister’s problem now — well, one of many — is that the very qualities that fueled his rise are fanning the backlash.

He was a fresh face in a large crowd of politicians, but he has no history with voters, no policy accomplishments to trot out in his defense, no residual goodwill to draw on. He initially seemed charmingly unpredictable but, on second thought, seems more impulse-driven, even reckless. His personal story was appealing, but now, voters have every reason to doubt he’s the guy they thought he was.

He made quite a show of speaking truth to power, but now the people in power, led by his fellow Republicans, are his loudest critics. They don’t need him to protect a seat that will likely stay in GOP hands, regardless of his fate, and is up again in just seven months. They don’t need the embarrassment, and they owe him no personal loyalty.

Comparisons between McAllister’s situation and U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s 2007 prostitution scandal are inevitable and present an awkward dilemma for Republicans who want McAllister to go but defend Vitter’s right to not only stay in Congress but run for governor. Expect Democrats to go to town on Gov. Bobby Jindal and state GOP Chairman Roger Villere, who have called on the congressman to resign immediately.

Vitter, though, had some advantages that McAllister doesn’t. He was well-known and popular before the news broke. And spectacular transgressions aside, Vitter is as disciplined as McAllister is loose. He’s got a keen strategic sense and used it to choreograph a strong show of support from fellow Republicans and his own family. And he had time, three full years, to put some distance between himself and the incident before he had to go before voters.

Most importantly of all, though, he was strategically placed. I’ve long maintained, and still firmly believe, that Vitter’s secret weapon was none other than then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Had his fellow Republicans pushed him out, she would have appointed a Democrat to the coveted seat in a closely divided Senate. As much as GOP leaders squirmed, the cost of throwing Vitter over would have simply been too high.

Actually, in some ways, McAllister reminds me just as much of another fallen politician, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Like McAllister, Nagin ran an anti-establishment campaign, tapped into voters’ weariness with politics as usual, and leaned heavily on biography, charm and what appeared at the time to be straight talk. We all know what happened once the bloom faded and people saw Nagin in the harsh light of day.

McAllister says he wants to hold on and try to win re-election this fall in what will now be a very different race than the easy ride he’d expected. And if he follows through, he’ll have to run as a very different politician.

So here’s the big question: What else — if anything — has he got?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs. theadvocate.com/gracenotes.