Stephanie Grace: Flawed McAllister tapped into real message

From the moment U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister burst onto the political scene last year, it was clear his adventures would make a good story.

Who knew the story would turn out to be a soap opera?

On Monday, the budding star-turned-“Kissing Congressman” made the end of the tale official: Less than six months after his improbable shellacking of establishment candidate and state Sen. Neil Riser in an all-GOP runoff in Louisiana’s congressional 5th District, McAllister said he’d leave Congress early next year. Rises and falls don’t come much more meteoric than this.

In announcing that he won’t seek re-election in the fall, McAllister managed to stick one last finger in the state GOP leadership’s eye. Both the party and Gov. Bobby Jindal called on the congressman to resign immediately after a video surfaced of him passionately embracing a married aide in his district office. Other high-ranking officials stopped a bit short but said if they were in McAllister’s shoes, they’d certainly quit.

Instead, after spending several weeks behind closed doors with the wife and family he’d trotted out during the campaign to burnish his Christian family values, he said he’d finish out his single half-term in D.C.

Peccadilloes aside, the upshot is that a potentially interesting career has been cut short.

McAllister deserves to be relegated to a footnote, of course. And in retrospect, it’s not at all clear he had what it takes to have made an impact in the first place.

But it’s worth remembering that his election, which suddenly seems so long ago, tapped into something real. He may have been a far-from-perfect vehicle, but voters sure seemed to use McAllister to channel their displeasure over the cynicism that permeates today’s politics.

McAllister’s success was clearly a rebuke to the maneuvering that was obviously aimed at giving Riser a leg up in last fall’s special election. Former U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander’s sudden resignation, the subsequent news that he would join Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, the quick scheduling of the election to replace him and Riser’s readiness all conspired to make it feel like a fix. Voters who saw it that way weren’t off base.

The victory also amounted to a collective nod of approval for his approach to politics. McAllister campaigned as a politician who’d be willing to cross party lines in the name of solving problems for his district. That attitude’s bound to appeal to plenty of voters, particularly when the other guy is espousing ideological orthodoxy.

The most famous example was McAllister’s endorsement of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, fully funded by the federal government for three years and 90 percent covered thereafter, which Jindal refuses to accept. Citing widespread poverty in the 5th District, McAllister said he opposes the ACA but couldn’t support turning down medical insurance for people in need. He also criticized the congressional GOP leadership’s repeated votes to repeal the law, arguing instead that Washington should try to fix its flaws.

When McAllister took that position, Riser’s campaign pounced. The state senator, a Jindal ally, figured he had a winning issue with the district’s largely conservative voters, but he couldn’t have been more wrong. McAllister’s 20-point margin of victory suggested that his more conciliatory approach was either a nonissue with most voters, or a plus.

It’s worth remembering all of this because voters who’ve been burned often react with caution and go for a safer choice next time, someone who’s less likely to spring any surprises or leave them with regrets. Make no mistake, a fresh shot at the seat is a victory for the establishment that flubbed things so badly last time.

But if there’s a lesson for philandering politicians in McAllister’s story, there’s also one for those who will compete to replace him. He may have been a badly flawed messenger, but he had an awfully good message.

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