NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Republican businessman Vance McAllister, a political newcomer who boasts of never having visited Washington, D.C., won a special election in Louisiana on Saturday to fill the congressional seat formerly held by fellow Republican Rodney Alexander.
In a runoff to fill Louisiana’s vacant 5th Congressional District, McAllister took 60 percent of the vote against fellow Republican Neil Riser, a state senator. All precincts have reported in the largely conservative and mostly rural district.
McAllister, running as an outsider, lined up an endorsement from “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, the patriarch in the popular reality show, and cast member Willie Robertson appeared in a commercial for the candidate. The program is shot in the northeast part of Louisiana that McAllister will represent.
Unlike McAllister, Riser had the backing of a number of prominent Republicans including U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
McAllister campaigned as a social and fiscal conservative. But the college dropout, whose business interests range from oilfield technology to fast-food franchises, also pledged to return some civility to the nation’s capital and positioned himself slightly to the left of Riser.
He argued that Louisiana should accept the Medicaid expansion called for in the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare reform effort.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, has refused to accept the expansion that would be fully financed by the federal government for three years and then subject to a 10 percent state match.
“What a blessing,” McAllister told supporters in a victory speech that echoed his campaign’s populist tone. “It’s gonna be fun. I guess Fox News, get ready. Sometimes the truth ain’t what you want to hear, but it’s what you’re going to get.”
Alluding to the race’s at-times negative tone, he said his election is proof that “you don’t have to be ugly and nasty and tell lies and make up stories. You can be who you are.”
Riser agreed with the governor’s stance to reject the Medicaid expansion.
As a state senator, Riser authored a Louisiana constitutional amendment requiring any state gun restrictions to pass the “strict scrutiny” test. The funeral home owner was the contest’s early favorite with backing from the conservative Tea Party of Louisiana and the national group FreedomWorks, which is aligned with the Tea Party movement.
The 5th District stretches from the Arkansas border south to the outer edges of the New Orleans area. It has a higher rate of poverty than the national average and more 35 percent of residents are black.
Joshua Stockley, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said McAllister’s big win signaled that the hard-line stance of some Republicans has limits.
“Republicans will not become a majority party or a governing party with the simple message of defund Obamacare, defund Obamacare, defund Obamacare,” he said. “The voters of the 5th District appeared to repudiate that theme.”
“Clearly the endorsements of Phil and Willie Robertson made a lot of voters feel better” about their attraction to his candidacy, Stockley said.
In October, Riser finished first in the non-partisan primary against a field of 13 rival candidates, taking 32 percent. He was followed by McAllister with 18 percent. In Louisiana, if no candidate earns a majority of the vote in the open primary, the top two finishers meet in the runoff, regardless of party.
The congressional seat opened in August when Alexander, in his sixth term, resigned to become Jindal’s secretary of veterans’ affairs.
Since he is replacing a Republican, McAllister’s election will not change the Republican majority in the U.S. House. Democrats have a majority in the Senate.
Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Bill Trott