5th congressional race focuses on nuanced opposition to Obamacare

Two very similar Republicans facing each other in the runoff election for Louisiana’s staunchly conservative congressional 5th District hope to distinguish themselves with nuanced positions about how much each one hates Obamacare.

It’s the first congressional election nationally since the end of the 16-day federal government shutdown caused when a GOP faction tried to defund President Barack Obama’s signature Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

The election to replace former U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander is in a 24-parish congressional district that, with 20.9 percent of the residents without health care coverage, has the highest uninsured rate in Louisiana and among the highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, claims his opponent is wishy-washy for not opposing Obamacare strongly enough.

Businessman Vance McAllister, R-Monroe, counters that repealing the Affordable Care Act is not politically feasible at this time and the focus should be on kicking out the bad and keeping the good.

Riser attracted 33,045 votes — about 32 percent of the total cast in the Oct. 19 primary, while McAllister, making his first run for public office, got 33,045 votes, or 17.8 percent, to win the second place on the runoff ballot.

About 21.5 percent of the district’s 481,294 registered voters cast ballots in the primary.

Early voting begins Saturday and runs through Nov. 9 for the Nov. 16 election.

Election Day coincides with the opening of the regular deer-hunting season in northeast Louisiana, around the Baton Rouge area and most of the Florida parishes.

In the past, deer-hunting season has impacted voter turnout.

In their television advertising, both Riser and McAllister push their conservative credentials with lots of scenes that feature walking with family and repeated mentions of Christian faith.

Both also oppose the Affordable Care Act.

The GOP-led House has voted more than 40 times and shut down government for 16 days in an unsuccessful attempt to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act.

McAllister touts himself as the younger, more refreshing choice and pushes his lack of political experience as a positive.

He argues the more successful strategy to change Obamacare will be to treat the president and Democrats with respect and work at making the program’s worst features more acceptable.

“We have so much hatred,” McAllister told KARD-TV in West Monroe. “I’m looking to build relationships.”

Riser, on the other hand, is sticking with the hard-line “repeal Obamacare” approach.

“If the (Obamacare) rollout should be any sign of things to come, then all of us should be terrified,” Riser said.

Championing conservative principles is the only way to save America, Riser says, adding if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

The Tea Party of Louisiana, a Baton Rouge organization, last week endorsed Riser in the runoff, saying McAllister’s statements were too conciliatory.

University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley said both candidates took strong, anti-Obamacare stances in one of the poorest districts in the country.

McAllister “has developed a more nuanced stance.”

“For Vance, this could be an opportunity to distinguish himself from his opponent a little bit as the more pragmatic candidate,” Stockley said.

It also gives Riser the opportunity to peg McAllister as “waffling or playing both sides of the fence,” Stockley said.

“Obamacare is important with the Republican base. But as you move out of that base, I think there’s not nearly the intensity,” said Roy Fletcher, a longtime Baton Rouge GOP political consultant who handled media for state Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, one of the losing candidates in the 5th District primary.

Fletcher says the situation after the fallout of the shutdown, in which a majority of Americans blamed Republican hardliners, may require candidates to move away from the “no way, no how” positions held during the primary campaign.

“I’m not too sure that McAllister didn’t get it right by saying, ‘It’s the law now; let’s fix it and make it right.’ That essentially is not a Republican position. But it just might be the right position now,” Fletcher said.

State Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa, said while registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 5th District, the largely rural and small-town voters tend to be very conservative and don’t vote party, he said about the district, which covers the areas he has represented since 1999.

About 60 percent of the district backed GOP nominee Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama last year.

“People are looking for someone, not necessarily to embrace the Affordable Care Act, but to either amend it to fix the issues that many people have or come up with an alternative plan,” Nevers said.

“All of us realize that we have a big problem with the health care in this country … and the 5th Congressional District is the worst in the state.”

About one-third of the district’s registered voters are African-American, 28 percent of whom have no health care insurance.

Nationally, 14.8 percent of the population is without health care coverage, and 17.3 percent of the African-American community is uninsured.

As state representative in 2011, now-state Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, headed the committee that redrew the 5th District’s lines to fit the 2010 U.S. census findings.

He said he wanted follow the traditional precepts and redraw the district, which had lost population that would have put Shreveport and Monroe in the same compact, horizontal district.

The so-called “Interstate 20 Plan” would have been about 40 percent African-American.

Top aides of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said prior to the redistricting session that the administration would stay out of the process, “came out forcefully and said the governor would veto the I-20 plan,” Gallot said.

Instead, the aides pushed the design the district has now, flowing vertically south from the Monroe area into the central part of the state, down the Mississippi River and turning east to include the largely rural areas south of the Mississippi state line with the Florida parishes.

Gallot says the district’s design minimizes the voice of people without insurance and goes a long way toward explaining why the candidates are taking the positions that they have.