By MARK SHIELDS
In the U.S. House of 435 members where seniority still counts, Republican Vance McAllister is last in seniority, 432nd to be precise. That’s because there are currently three vacant seats. He was sworn into office on Nov. 21, following his upset victory in a special election held by Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District. Five days earlier, when McAllister won 60 percent of the vote against his favored opponent, state Sen. Neil Riser, who was very well-financed and backed by the Louisiana Republican Party, including the state’s Republican House members, House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, and the Louisiana tea party.
Why were two Republicans running? Because under Louisiana law, if no candidate wins a majority during the primary in which all candidates appear on the ballot (there were 14), then the top two finishers, irrespective of party, qualify for the runoff. Riser had handily won the primary 12 percentage points ahead of McAllister, 39, who had never before run for any public office.
Both candidates opposed abortion, gun control, and the size and reach of the government. But they differed on Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to reject the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would extend coverage to more low-income, uninsured state residents. Riser backed Jindal and went on TV to denounce McAllister for publicly endorsing Medicaid expansion to citizens of the 5th District, one of the nation’s poorest in which close to a quarter of households survive on an annual income of less than $15,000. Riser’s paid message: “A vote for Vance McAllister is a vote for ObamaCare.”
So what is the possible significance of one Republican defeating another in a Louisiana special House race for the 2014 national elections, which are still almost a year away? In fairness, McAllister, an Army veteran and self-made business success who was able to self-finance his own campaign, had a strong personal story to tell. He did not seek to run to the right of Riser and oppose the shutdown of the federal government in a doomed gesture to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And unlike Riser, who backed the shutdown and pledged repeal of the health law, he argued that with Democrats controlling both the White House and Senate, repeal was unattainable. He suggested working to change and improve the health law instead.
What McAllister had going for him in his upset victory — and what no current member of Congress running in 2014 will ever be able to claim — is that he truly was the fresh face, the nonpolitician who was unbossed and unbought. He did not hesitate to remind voters of the 5th District that despite his affluence, he had never been to Washington, D.C.
Seven out of 10 Americans believe their country is headed in the wrong direction, and fewer than one in 10 has a positive opinion of Congress’s performance, so the McAllister model could truly become a nightmare scenario for congressional incumbents. The appealing, solutions-minded outsider with a positive personal story to offer cannot be portrayed as part of the problem. Riser had the resume. He had incumbency, experience and the support and praise of elected leaders of his state and party. He had plenty of campaign money. And yet, he lost. This is why McAllister’s victory should send chills about the 2014 elections through everybody in Washington, Democrat or Republican.