TALLULAH, La. — Vance McAllister’s political career flatlined earlier this year, a victim of self-inflicted wounds from an embarrassing infidelity scandal.
But less than three months before the midterm elections, the Louisiana Republican has suddenly, improbably, become the man to beat this November.
McAllister, who was holding a series of businesslike, low-drama town hall meetings in small communities in the east end of his mostly rural district last week, told CQ Roll Call that both he and his constituents have moved on from the ”Kissing Congressman” scandal that erupted in April, after a video surfaced showing him embracing a married staffer.
“It’s really only the Washington media that’s keeping that going,” he said in an interview outside the community meeting room in the small farm town of Winnsboro, population 4,910.
And, at least among the business leaders, city council members, farmers and veterans who attended the question-and-answer sessions in Winnsboro and nearby Tallulah, McAllister seemed to have a point.
The congressman was asked about the border crisis, the Keystone XL pipeline, national security issues and the problems with Department of Veterans Affairs — but not a single question arose about the video.
Attendees in both towns — self-described Republicans and Democrats alike — told CQ Roll Call the controversy, as far as they were concerned, was settled and the congressman and his family have suffered enough.
Tallulah Mayor Paxton Branch, a Democrat who introduced McAllister on August 7, was uncomfortable even entertaining a question about any lingering concerns over the infidelity scandal. “That’s a private matter,” he said.
After the scandal broke in the spring, McAllister issued a short apology for his actions and initially said he would not run for another term in the House — only to backtrack in June with an announcement that he would seek re-election after all.
On August 7, he reiterated that he’s in the race this fall to win.
McAllister, an oil man and fast-food franchisee who came out of nowhere last year and spent more than $800,000 of his own money to win a November 2013 special election to fill the seat vacated by Rodney Alexander, said he’s prepared to spend that much again if needed.
“We don’t think it will take that this time, but if it does, so be it,” he said.
And, with a number of events scheduled in coming weeks both in Louisiana and in Washington, he predicted a better showing for the campaign’s under-performing fundraising efforts.
McAllister often was lumped in with the tea-party-wing of the GOP when he arrived on Capitol Hill, but in Washington he’s one of a handful of Republicans on board with calls for a reinstatement of FDR-era Glass-Steagall banking regulations. And he bucked his own party leadership earlier this summer on amendments to defense and water resources appropriations bills.
According to data compiled by our partners at CQ, McAllister voted with his party 93.6 percent of the time.
He’s enough of a wild card that some of his critics in the Louisiana GOP have suggested he’d be more at home in the Democratic Party.
For his part, McAllister says he’s a Republican and plans to remain one.
But at his town hall meetings, the 40-year-old father of five made no apologies for taking what he described as a practical, solutions-oriented approach to politics.
He decried the far right’s antipathy for Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — “Whether you like Eric Holder or not, at some point you have to deal with what’s there” — and called for a two-party solution to the border crisis: “It’s not a red or blue issue, it’s a purple issue.
He added in Tallulah, “This whole mentality of the far right versus the far left . . . it sells newspapers and generates cable TV ratings, but it solves nothing. And it’s destroying the country.”
It was a theme McAllister returned to throughout the day, criticizing what he called the “Just Vote No” caucus.
Too many lawmakers in safe districts, he said, vote no to avoid taking responsibility for solving the nation’s problems. “It’s easy to say no to everything. You can always defend a ‘no’ vote.”
Still, McAllister’s calls for more bipartisanship haven’t sat well with some of Louisiana’s tea party types looking for a more confrontational, Ted Cruz-style Republican.
He’s also fallen out of favor with many of the state’s establishment GOP leaders (including Gov. Bobby Jindal, who called on him to resign) who had their own plans for the seat that McAllister swooped in and nabbed last year.
Members of those two wings of the state Republican Party had hoped to coalesce by now around one candidate to bump off the incumbent.
But as the field increasingly looks set for the 5th District race — with the incumbent flanked by Democrat Jamie Mayo on the left and four insurgent Republicans on the right — McAllister has the middle all to himself.
Several attendees at McAllister’s town hall meetings warned the congressman not to underestimate Mayo, a dynamic, multi-term mayor of a 49,000-population Monroe, the largest city in the northeast Louisiana district. Mayo finished third in the running for the 5th District seat last year.
But Mayo, who is African-American, is embroiled in his own front-page drama in Monroe, where the city’s first black chief of police is under fire from the police union. Mayo, defending the chief, blamed the controversy last week on racism and “sabotage” by his political opponents.
Running to McAllister’s right are Ralph Abraham, a physician from Mangham; Zach Dasher, a pharmaceutical salesman and a cousin of the “Duck Dynasty” reality show stars; former district attorney Ed Tarpley of Alexandria and Monroe businessman Harris Brown.
Local press paid a lot of attention to a recent poll from the Louisiana-based Glascock Group that found McAllister was the top choice of 27 percent of respondents in the 5th District — 6 points ahead of Mayo.
None of the other six challengers — four Republicans and two libertarians — were above 18 percent.
All are campaigning as more conservative alternatives to the incumbent, effectively splitting the anti-McAllister vote in the GOP — and breathing new life into a political career many in Washington had written off just a few weeks ago.
Under Louisiana’s “blanket primary,” all eight candidates appear on the November ballot. If no candidate tops 50 percent, the top two vote-getters advance to a Dec. 6 runoff. It’s not uncommon for races in the Pelican State to be decided so late.
The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates this race Safe Republican.