Washington Watch: Wild run for the 5th congressional district

by jordan blum

jblum@theadvocate.com

A whopping 14 people — all men — qualified on short notice for the 5th Congressional District seat being vacated next month by U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman. That amount far exceeds any of last year’s congressional races in Louisiana that all featured incumbents.

But there shouldn’t be a whole lot of surprise that there’s a large field, said University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Josh Stockley, despite allegations that some in the GOP tried to prop up state Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, and clear the field.

“I would’ve expected a large field because it’s an open seat,” Stockley said. “I expect a tight, highly contested election and it could get negative … I expect a lot of advertising, a lot of accusations.

“They realize the stakes,” Stockley continued. “If you ever wanted to be a congressman, this is a great opportunity.”

The open primary special election is Oct. 19 and candidates only have so much time to spread name recognition and build fundraising. So those candidates in current elected offices have built-in advantages.

That’s why Stockley said he sees the election as a four-man race of two Republicans and two Democrats — Riser, state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe; Democratic Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo; and state Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Marksville.

A runoff in November is a virtual guarantee with a crowded field, Stockley said, and it will be interesting to see if Morris can match Riser and whether Mayo, an African American, or Johnson, who is white, will rise out of the Democratic field. There also is a chance the runoff could include two Republicans.

Stockley said he is curious if Mayo can attract more moderate white voters. “It’s something African-American candidates, not just in Louisiana, but in the South have struggled with,” he said.

Geography also matters immensely. Mayo, for instance, isn’t well known in the southern parts of the sprawling district, while Johnson has little name recognition near Monroe.

The two “second-tier” candidates are state Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, who Stockley said lacks the size of Mayo’s base support in Monroe, and Republican state Public Service Commissioner Clyde Holloway, of Forest Hill. Holloway is a former congressman and he has name recognition, but he hasn’t served in Washington since 1993 and he turns 70 in November.

Stockley said he questions whether Holloway is well enough known outside of senior citizens.

Riser is a funeral home owner who had a head start on everyone else. He has said he was not involved in any coordination efforts and that he has long planned to run for the seat whenever Alexander opted to step down. Alexander is taking a Cabinet position with Gov. Bobby Jindal overseeing veterans’ affairs.

Riser quickly launched a campaign website shortly after Alexander publicly announced he would not seek re-election in 2014 and that he would step down next month. Riser is being endorsed by Alexander and U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; and John Fleming, R-Minden.

“I expect to see a whole lot of money from Washington coming to Riser’s campaign,” Stockley said. “But what kind of backlash will he receive from those who interpret this whole thing was orchestrated for him?”

The 5th District is one of the poorest congressional districts in the nation. It covers all or part of 24 parishes across northeastern Louisiana, through much of central Louisiana, across the northern Baton Rouge metro area — though not East Baton Rouge Parish itself — along the state line with Mississippi through the Florida Parishes to Washington Parish.

Out of the other eight candidates running, there’s an assortment of red, blue, green and more.

They include Fairbanks oil and gas landman Tom Gibbs and Lettsworth resident Peter Williams, both of whom have no party affiliation. Gibbs previously ran against Alexander. Then there’s Green Party candidate Eliot Barron and Republicans Vance McAllister, of Monroe, and Phillip “Blake” Weatherly, of Calhoun. Democratic former state Rep. R. Weldon Russell III, of Amite, also is in the field.

And two Libertarians have filed: Baton Rouge underwriter S.B.A. Zaitoon and Delhi resident Henry Herford Jr., who was notably arrested last year at the Louisiana State Republican Convention in protest of his support for Ron Paul for president. The charges were dropped and Herford is suing the state Republican Part leadership.

Barron and Zaitoon don’t live in the 5th Congressional District. But, why not? It’s not legally necessary anyway.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate’s Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.com.