WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, surprised many with the timing when he announced on Tuesday that he would not seek re-election in 2014. He caught even more off guard the next day when he accepted a cabinet position in the Jindal administration to oversee the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, almost immediately said he was “100 percent” in the race to replace Alexander. Riser even launched a campaign website within two days. Riser, a funeral home owner, quickly received endorsements from U.S. Reps. John Fleming, R-Minden; Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; with more on the way.
The already close Aug. 19-21 candidate sign-up before the Oct. 19 open primary election gives an advantage to a candidate like Riser who was already poised and ready to go, pundits and political party leaders agree.
But Louisiana Democratic Party officials are vowing they will not concede another congressional seat, like the party did against the GOP incumbents last year, even if they are fighting an uphill battle.
Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy, Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo, state Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, and state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, are among the top Democratic contenders strongly considering a run for the 5th congressional district seat. Party leadership is hoping to line up behind a single, to-be-determined Democratic frontrunner.
“I think this is certainly a winnable district for the right Democrat … even in this short timeframe,” said state Democratic Party Executive Director Stephen Handwerk, who admitted being surprised by the turn of events and how soon the election is coming.
Handwerk said it is a “new day” for Democrats and that they have worked hard to “power up” the base through grassroots efforts and training sessions.
On paper, Democrats have a fighting chance. The district – the largest geographically in the state – stretches from northeastern Louisiana to St. Landry Parish to parts of the Baton Rouge metro area and Washington Parish.
One-third of the mostly rural district is African-American and 50 percent of the total registered voters are Democrats – compared to 27.5 percent Republicans – although many of the registered Democrats may no longer vote that way.
Once Alexander switched to the Republican Party in 2004, he has not faced strong Democratic opposition since.
A potential thorn in Riser’s side is that Alexander’s chief of staff, Adam Terry, of Harrisonburg, is still considering running on the GOP side.
University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Josh Stockley said Riser is the favorite and it appears Republicans are trying to clear the path for Riser. “But Democrats have a legitimate chance,” Stockley said. “Republicans are the odds on favorites, but anything can happen in 60 days.” The district “leans Republicans,” he said, but the right kind of moderate Democrat who can maintain 90 percent of the black vote has a strong, fighting chance.
For someone like Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy, Stockley said, “If he has higher aspirations, this is the time to do it.”
Still, timing is an issue and outside observers wondered whether Gov. Bobby Jindal, Alexander and Riser coordinated their plans to give Riser a leg up. Jindal’s top political consultant, Timmy Teepell, is in talks to possibly lead Riser’s campaign.
“The timing of how quickly everything transpired suggests there could have been some coordination,” Stockley said. “In politics things rarely happen in isolation … There was probably some behind-the-scenes negotiating.”
However, those involved deny such planning. Alexander, citing frustrations over partisan gridlock, said he was already planning to step down before Jindal offered him the job. Riser said he has eyed the congressional seat for some time, but that he had no intentions of challenging Alexander.
“Sen. Riser had already said that, when Rodney retired, he would like to seek his seat,” added state Republican Party Executive Director Jason Doré.
While the GOP has not yet endorsed anyone, Doré was quick to tout Riser.
“It appears that Sen. Riser is the early favorite in the race and a consensus is sort of forming around him with Republicans,” Doré said. “It seems like everyone is rallying around him.”
The GOP is “well positioned” to keep the seat, he said. “We can’t take anything for granted, but clearly the track record is the district has been won overwhelmingly by Republicans,” he added.
But Democrats like Gallot, Mayo and others maintain that the race will come down to the candidates and not their party affiliation.
“It’s going to boil down to the individual,” Gallot said, especially when voter turnout is the key on a special election date without any other federal elections on the ballot.
Mayo said it will come down to whoever the voters think will best fight for the interests of the constituency.
“I don’t think it’s automatic for anybody,” Mayo said. “This district is one of the poorest, if not the poorest, in the United States.”
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